My favourite game of all time is Final Fantasy VII, but a PUBG-esque battle royale prequel to the iconic turn-based JPRG wasn’t exactly something I wanted. Unfortunately, after spending a number of hours with the game’s recently concluded closed beta, I’ve come away feeling somewhat mixed on the experience.
Right from the start, I should mention that the general premise Square Enix and developer Ateam have gone for in The First Soldier is quite wise. Tetsuya Nomura, the overall creative director of the Final Fantasy VII subseries, has a frustrating tendency to include narrative elements in the mobile entries of a franchise that are essential to understanding the broader story — look no further than Kingdom Hearts.
Thankfully, that’s not an issue with The First Soldier, as it’s predominantly a standalone story about the origins of SOLDIER, the Shinra megacorporation’s elite superhuman task force, set 30 years before the events of Final Fantasy. Nomura has also said narrative elements will be kept to a minimum, which is definitely reassuring if you’re a fan of the ongoing Final Fantasy VII Remake saga like I am and were initially worried about the story becoming more convoluted.
But of course, The First Soldier is a battle royale first and foremost, and therein lies both its strengths and weaknesses. As is standard for the genre, The First Soldier has you and a bunch of other players (in this case, 75) thrown into a large map in a big battle to see who’s left standing.
It’s here that The First Soldier is at its most successful. The game’s map is based on a far less populated version of the iconic Final Fantasy VII city of Midgar, making it appropriate for a battle royale. What’s more, The First Soldier cleverly mixing recognizable elements of Midgar like the Sector 7 slums, Aerith’s church, the Collapsed Expressway, Don Corneo’s mansion — all based on their Final Fantasy VII Remake designs — while taking creative liberties in laying out the desert stretches. It’s cool to see Midgar — normally depicted as a massive industrial dystopia — in more of a basic form. There are also little easter eggs for FFVII fans, like the hidden base for the Avalanche eco-terrorist group in Tifa’s Seventh Heaven bar.
What makes The First Soldier more complicated, though, is its core gameplay mechanics. Like most battle royale games, you have your standard assortment of guns to use, like assault rifles, shotguns and sniper rifles. But the problem here is that the shooting just doesn’t feel responsive enough on mobile. Problematically, there’s no controller support as of yet for The First Soldier (although Square says it’s “being considered”), which makes gunfights feel clunky with the on-screen analogue stick. Vehicles fare even worse; there’s no such stick at all, so you have to awkwardly tap ‘left’ and ‘right’ buttons to steer.
Meanwhile, The First Soldier doesn’t explain how item rarity works in-game (not even in the mandatory tutorial) — a baffling choice that means you’ll have to figure out the differences between the four levels of rarity as you go. The four classes you can choose from as well — the Warrior, Sorcerer, Monk and Ranger — are also not very well explained. While I was pleased to discover each has its own progression system, they didn’t feel unique enough to drastically change the flow of combat. Auto-targeting for the melee-based Warrior and Monk jobs also felt too janky and unreliable. (In terms of consistent resolution and frame rate, the game fortunately looks and runs fairly well).
These issues are especially frustrating because some of The First Soldier‘s other mechanics actually bring a fair bit to the genre. In particular, Ateam has done a good job translating a lot of elements from Final Fantasy VII into The First Soldier. The best example of this is Materia, which characters in Final Fantasy VII use to cast magic. You can loot Materia throughout the map from chests or other players, and this gives you access to classic FF spells like Fire, Thunder, Bio (poison) and Cure.
You can even level up Materia to increase its potency by finding more of the ones you have equipped. Spells have an area of effect (AOE) to make them quite useful, but they’re also smartly balanced with an MP metre that recharges over time. Aero, especially, came in handy, as it created a gust of wind that launched my teammates and me into the air to make a hasty retreat if needed. Again, the touchscreen controls unfortunately hamper how precise you can be with these spells, but the core system at least works well otherwise.
The First Soldier adds another interesting wrinkle to the battle royale formula in the form of monsters, which are also taken from Final Fantasy VII. As you traverse the map, there are random creatures that you can defeat to complete challenges and obtain loot. Lower-level monsters are good ways of farming Gil to purchase items from buy stations (or even respawn fallen allies), but there are “mini-bosses” — like Final Fantasy VII‘s opening Scorpion Sentinel boss — that offer even greater rewards when beaten. As a nice touch, some of the incredible music from Final Fantasy VII Remake plays during these moments.
In rare instances, you can even snag Summon Materia to call forth powerful beasts like the fire-wielding Ifrit to help your team gain the upper hand. Overall, I appreciated having a third “faction” of sorts in the mix, as it encourages you to further explore the map and keep things a bit fresher than just constant player-vs-player encounters.
In the end, there’s a decent amount to like about The First Soldier, especially if you’re a Final Fantasy VII fan. The game makes good use of VII‘s world, especially when it comes to magic and enemies, thus helping differentiate it from the litany of other battle royales out there. However, they’re held back by spotty mobile controls and some half-baked job mechanics. Given all of that, it’s hard to see what audience the game might find beyond hardcore FF fans like me in the oversaturated battle royale market.
The First Soldier will launch later this year on Android and iOS.
Note: The game will be free-to-play with in-app purchases, although we don’t yet know their price or how extensive they will be.
Image credit: Square Enix
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