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The evolution of Final Fantasy 7

How the PS4 remake stacks up against prior versions of Midgar on PS1, PS3 and PSP.

Final Fantasy 7 is closing in on its twentieth anniversary and over the past two decades, Square-Enix has released countless spin-off games, tech demos and movies based on this epic release. Through it all, fans have continued to hold their collective breath for that one impossible thing - a remake of Final Fantasy 7. We were as surprised as anyone when this project was actually announced at E3 earlier this year, but with its reveal trailer consisting entirely of pre-rendered CGI, we didn't expect to see any in-engine footage for a long while.

However, that's exactly what was shown at the recent PlayStation Experience conference in San Francisco. A lot of information was revealed, including the controversial news that it would be split up into multiple parts, but we were more interested in seeing the game in action. As with Kingdom Hearts 3, this new vision of Final Fantasy 7 is created using Unreal Engine 4 and it's looking sharp - butthis isn't the first time we've seen the Midgar rendered with updated graphics and that lead us to wonder, just how does this new take on the game stack up against the multitude of teasers we've experienced over the years?

We pulled together multiple sources and sat down to find out. One of the first things that we were surprised to see is just how closely the team is following the introduction sequence of the game. All of the characters are present and accounted for with slick new designs to boot. Ever wondered what Jesse, Biggs, and Wedge would look like in Unreal Engine 4? Well, bam, they're in there.

Of course there's a massive leap in quality between the original PlayStation and PlayStation 4, but there is one often forgotten look at Midgar that we just couldn't ignore - the Final Fantasy 7 Technical Demonstration for PlayStation 3. Yes, this demo was first presented all the way back in 2005 when the hardware was first revealed at the now infamous conference with the pre-rendered Killzone 2 and Motorstorm 'target renders'.

We've never uncovered the truth behind this tech demo - was it rendered on a PS3 devkit? Perhaps an offline render? Or was it created on a high-spec PC? Regardless, the demo still holds up rather well today with a 60fps frame-rate and plenty of detail throughout. Looking at it in 2015 we can see a lot of modern rendering effects missing, such as the lack of contact shadows, but it remains quite attractive.

The evolution of Final Fantasy 7. Spread across nearly two decades, it's a world that Square-Enix has revisited many times over and you can see how they compare in this video.

This demo basically covers the introduction sequence for the game, which we haven't seen in remake form just yet, but there is one moment where the two paths cross. Both the demo and the remake trailer feature Cloud leaping from the train in preparation for battle - the new UE4 model is more detailed, with complex shaders and texture work, but they both look pretty good. The PS3 tech demo model appears cleaner and more reminiscent of Advent Children, while the remake iteration of Cloud is gaunt and almost sickly in appearance, which we presume is an intentional design choice. We also see that the scenery in the first area makes better use of colour in the remake. Compared to the original FF7 on PlayStation 1, the PS3 demo is rather gray and dull while the remake sports a look that more closely resembles the original designs. It's fascinating to see.

Players have also had the chance to explore parts of Midgar in Crisis Core: Final Fantasy 7 on Sony's PSP portable. We popped that in as well just for fun and were impressed by just how well the game still holds up today. While the world is broken up into small areas, the general visual quality is extremely impressive for the platform. It's running on circa-2004 mobile technology but would still hold up well on PS Vita or modern smartphones.

Once you're able to hit the streets of Midgar, it's interesting to compare the game to the very brief exploration sections shown in the PlayStation Experience trailer. With similar camera angles, it gives us some idea of what the development team might be aiming for, though the scale is obviously going to be much greater on PS4. The same thing goes for combat which, as with the Remake, is more action-oriented than the original FF7.

Clearly, the single biggest concern around the game lies in its announced structure. Splitting the game up into multiple chunks is not something fans were ready to hear, but we can fully understand the need to take this approach. There is an impressive level of detail on display here and such assets don't come cheap - and can't be produced quickly. The idea of exploring Midgar as a whole certainly seems enticing and is something that likely would never happen if the game was designed as a single product. More importantly, this release structure will also likely result in a more reasonable launch date.

For us though, we're more curious to see if developer CyberConnect2 can produce a stable frame-rate with visuals of this quality. While the team has experience with Unreal Engine, we haven't seen many examples of great performing UE4 titles on either current generation console. It's true that most projects have been released by small indie teams and it's fair to assume that Square-Enix has allotted a much larger budget, but there is still uncertainty there - especially based on some scenes in the trailer, which seem a little choppy. Hopefully we'll begin seeing optimised Unreal Engine 4 console titles in the coming year that will put our concerns to rest.

As for the game itself, clearly a different approach to game design is being taken here. Some may be disappointed by this fact but we're excited to see what the team can deliver. It's a new opportunity to see the world of Final Fantasy 7 in a completely different light and this is also a chance to reach a new audience that may never have played the original. Hopefully we'll find out a lot more about this project in 2016.

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