Square-Enix's first Final Fantasy battle royale... And possibly their last
I started writing this review while hiding in the Corneo Mansion's luxurious bedroom, clutching my assault rife to my chest and listening to the sounds of gunfire outside my window. As I watched the names of other fighters being killed and saw the "training" zone closing in, I knew my time was short.
Still I had enough time to hide in the corner, as I am known to do in battle royale games, and start writing down my thoughts on Final Fantasy VII The First Soldier. I suppose I should start by saying that I never got into Fortnite or PUBG, but I do really like the Final Fantasy series. So when Final Fantasy VII The First Soldier released on November 17th 2021 (just in time for Thanksgiving?) I knew I had to play this game if only to see how it might expand on the story of Final Fantasy VII (spoiler alert: it doesn't).
The First Soldier presents itself as a direct Fortnite clone upon starting the app, showing your customizable character alongside an empty crew if you don't have friends who play the game like me. And it's hard to have friends- who play the game because this release is for Android/iOS only. I'll touch on the controls later, but suffice it to say that the idea of playing a shooter on mobile isn't exactly ideal for many players who might be used to traditional game controllers or a PC mouse/keyboard (note the game does have controller support).
Slap a Final Fantasy VII skin on Fortnite
The gameplay is mostly identical to other battle royale shooters, but with a few Final Fantasy twists. 75 players drop in via helicopters while the Final Fantasy VII battle theme blazes in your ears and then it's a fight to the last player standing while an ever-imposing circle closes in to tighten the map. There are a few things that differentiate this game from other battle royale shooters, such as being able to fight Final Fantasy VII's monsters while out in the field, but The First Soldier could have gone so much further.
Beyond the guns, you also have an arsenal of spells available to pick up and use. There are many spells pulled from Final Fantasy lore, but the cure spell was by far my most used one. I also really enjoyed the aero spell which spawns a quick tornado and can send you (or anyone nearby) flying totally out of control. I've used the aero spell quite a few times to try and surprise my enemies by jumping over buildings. You also have a skill specific to the class that you choose (warrior, monk, ranger, sorcerer, and ninja). I ended up sticking with the sorcerer class for most of my playthrough as it helped conserve mp (which is used to cast spells) and I felt the game's magic system was something that made it a bit unique compared to other battle royale shooters.
Hit the target but missed the opportunity
All of that said, I really think that Final Fantasy VII The First Soldier is a huge missed opportunity when it comes to expanding the story. The magic and class skills are a great addition to the battle royale formula, but when I think about Final Fantasy I don't think about shooting a bomb monster in the face with a shotgun - I think about the storyline and the characters. While many gamers have a certain nostalgia for the sights and music of Final Fantasy VII, let's not kid ourselves here. The First Soldier is meant to capitalize on not only the popularity of battle royale shooters but also the current Final Fantasy VII Remake series of games.
This mobile release would have been a great opportunity to focus on a side story in the Final Fantasy VII universe, maybe about members of the elite fighting force named SOLDIER. Instead the game essentially drops you right into the multiplayer action with no story or explanation at all. The main characters of Final Fantasy VII are nowhere to be seen, although you certainly can buy Cloud's outfit for the in-game currency equivalent of $20 USD.
The First Soldier is free-to-play, meaning that it's actually heavily monetized. There is a gacha system for obtaining weapon skins and character costumes, there is a battle pass with heavy emphasis on paying to upgrade your progress, and there is a shop where you can exchange the game's currency for more cosmetic items including the nostalgia inducing
clothing of Final Fantasy VII's protagonists.
The controls (oh god the controls)
But lack of story and monetization aside, is the game fun? The short answer is "yes but it's also janky as hell"... The game certainly nailed the overall feeling of Final Fantasy VII in terms of graphics and music. It's great to fight in Midgar and see familiar locations as you try to survive. However, it's pretty difficult to enjoy the wonderful sights and sounds of Midgar when you can barely control your character.
It would be great if Square-Enix eventually publishes The First Soldier on other platforms beyond mobile, but for now you either need to deal with the touch screen controls or use a controller (I prefer the Backbone). Oddly, even when using a controller the in-game thumbstick and touch screen controls still clutter the screen. Using a controller helps, but it does not fully alleviate the game's control issues. It can sometimes be difficult to run and gun accurately on a touch screen, but the issues are amplified the most when trying to drive a car. The First Soldier attempts to use the same warthog driving mechanics first established in the Halo series on Xbox, but in practice I could barely drive any cars in a straight line.
In the screenshot above I was experiencing this:
The game also seems to want an emphasis on parkour, allowing you to jump and run up some walls. The problem is that this is very difficult to actually pull off, even when riding on a chocobo which has a loftier jump. On top of that the game has a lot of empty space. Even though each round starts with 75 players, it can feel like you're endlessly running through a barren wasteland once you're down to 40 or 50 fighters. Lastly, and maybe this is just me, but when firing your guns something feels off as if you're shooting air instead of bullets. And that's not to mention that every gun feels very similar whether it's a pistol, shotgun, or assault rifle.
Hopefully the developer that Square-Enix has partnered with, Ateam, patches the controls or maybe even releases the game on additional platforms which might have better control options. The actual battle royale style is fun once you decide to leave your hiding space and join the fray. And while using a controller does improve gameplay a little bit, the overall level of "jank" in the controls was enough to consistently annoy me.
One last point, and it's potentially a game breaking one... I couldn't shake the occasional feeling that some of the 75 players in each round were bots. I would sometimes face off against VERY easy players- They might shoot me once and then just stand still while I mowed them down. Now I could be overthinking, but I know these types of competitive games will sometimes add a secret "easy" mode with bots to make the player feel like they're playing well. That said there were also many times that I would be running across the map and get sniped, so I know not every player is a bot.
I should also mention that the game has a chocobo breeding/raising system which could be interesting (and not nearly as good as Sonic Adventure's chao garden), but it's not the main appeal of the game.
Ultimately I had some fun with Final Fantasy VII The First Soldier, but I won't be sticking with it much longer. The Final Fantasy music and atmosphere help bring me into a genre that I'm not typically interested in, but the controls and wasted story potential leave me feeling bit disinterested.
Music and atmosphere are fantastic
Final Fantasy elements added to the genre - Magic and class system
No story mode/narrative