Image courtesy of Square Enix

Final Fantasy VII: The First Soldier blends RPG sensibilities with battle royale action

Mat Paget
Shoichi Ichikawa joined Square Enix in 2016 as the assistant producer on the mobile game Flame vs Blaze. As a long-time fan of the Final Fantasy VII series and the battle royale game genre, he took on the role of producer of Final Fantasy VII: The First Soldier. His role as producer includes managing the overall production of the Japanese and Western versions of the game, including the planning of the closed beta testing and incorporating the feedback before launch, along with planning for future content updates.
With the release of Final Fantasy VII Remake, Square Enix has been expanding the iconic game's mythos with new games. Final Fantasy VII: The First Soldier explores the decades leading up to the beloved RPG by way of an action-packed battle royale on mobile devices. But it's not only guns and swords you'll be using in the midst of a fight—you'll also be making use of your class's unique abilities and an assortment of classic Final Fantasy spells.

Considering the game is designed for mobile, The First Soldier's fast-paced action, numerous visual effects, and console-like graphics are impressive. But how is all this possible on a phone? We spoke to Square Enix Producer Shoichi Ichikawa about how the team utilized Unreal Engine to create the Final Fantasy battle royale experience and optimized it for phones.

How is the studio aiming to differentiate itself from other battle royale games?

Shoichi Ichikawa:
We’re attempting to create a unique experience by blending together RPG and action-game elements. 

We are taking the world and game systems of Final Fantasy VII and merging it with a genre that has a completely different feel without massively altering the core of FFVII. We are taking on this challenge to bring a new way to enjoy the Final Fantasy series.

Can you share where Final Fantasy VII: The First Soldier fits in within the timeline of Final Fantasy VII?

"SOLDIER Project: Project 0" started about 30 years prior to the events of Final Fantasy VII, and Final Fantasy VII: The First Soldier takes place about ten years after that. Simply put, the game is set about 20 years prior to the events of the original game. 

The First Soldier has striking visuals for a mobile game. Were there any ways that Unreal Engine helped optimize the game for mobile devices? 

There were numerous areas of development where our team saw benefits from using Unreal Engine. On the engineering side of things, Texture Streaming and Mobile Preview are two key points that come to mind. Texture Streaming allowed for optimizing the function to load textures efficiently within the game’s memory limitation. Additionally, Mobile Preview allowed our developers to see things in the editor as they would on an actual mobile device, so it helped us make adjustments efficiently. 

Our graphics team also saw great benefit in two particular areas. First, flexibility in the scaling settings was very helpful when adjusting our resources for different scaling options. The other was how quickly lighting adjustments were applied. Any lighting adjustments made for the mobile platform were reflected into the game right away, which allowed for easy light tweaking.
Image courtesy of Square Enix
Can you delve into how the team implemented its robust VFX into The First Soldier?

We created and implemented visual effects based on designs that take into consideration the difference in performance of various devices a user might play on. In order to achieve this, we implemented a number of different procedures: utilizing Cascade LOD for reduction and optimization, reducing overdraw by converting and utilizing meshes, optimizing scalability settings, implementing post-process materials, and much more.

Furthermore, the glow effect on high-luminosity surfaces was very effective in raising visual quality. By using numerous mesh particles and pairing that with the flexibility of the material used, we were able to create visuals that are three-dimensional and varied while keeping the rendering costs low. This helped to make our visual effects very close to what we were initially going for and on par with a high-end console title. 

Were there any ways in which you were able to leverage existing assets from Final Fantasy VII Remake for The First Soldier?

Yes, we would often use these for visual references. These assets would be used to confirm details or help us consider what makes a certain element feel like Final Fantasy VII as we recreated its setting. It’s quite difficult to express it in words, but because of these graphical assets, the development team was able to establish a sort of common language from a visual standpoint.

With classes like Monk, Sorcerer, and Ninja, can you share your approach to their respective designs and how you aim to balance them?

First, we established a concept and style for each style—Ninja equated to mobility, while Monk was vitality. From there, we’d think about skill-sets and balance that would embody those concepts. As we were adjusting each of the different styles, we were especially cognizant about the optimal combat distance. For example, the Warrior is very skilled with close-range attacks, whereas the Sorcerer would have a better advantage using AOE (area of effect) from a mid-distance range. 

By making the most of this concept of optimal combat distance as a key gameplay mechanic, it allowed us to open up a wide range of possibilities from a gameplay perspective with the different styles.
Image courtesy of Square Enix
Can you share your approach to mixing up gunplay with Materia within a real-time battle-royale environment?

Naturally, guns are the main attraction of any game in the shooter genre, including battle royale. In Final Fantasy VII: The First Soldier, we made sure to incorporate different types of guns for different distances, so the player would get the biggest bang for their buck by using the appropriate type of gun in any given situation.

With that in mind, the Materia comes into play as something that would break that concept of optimal combat distance, at least for a certain amount of time. Materia’s effects are varied; some might affect the area of effect of a player’s attack or allow them to fly up into the air, but each one is intended to be used alongside gun and melee attacks, rather than using it individually. This helps to bring out the full potential of a Materia.

We believe this combination creates a fresh, new experience, different from the typical strategy that focuses primarily on gunplay.
Image courtesy of Square Enix
What were some of the design challenges in making combat feel like Final Fantasy VII while still working in the confines of a battle-royale game? 

One of our biggest challenges was balancing the power of guns and melee attacks. You may have heard the phrase, “The gun is mightier than the sword,” if you’ve watched a certain Japanese anime series, but honestly, it was quite the struggle trying to figure out how we can get the sword to stay competitive against a gun. Of course, we can make the sword as strong as we want by skewing the overall balance, but I wanted to make sure combat with a sword was believable in these realistic depictions of battles and also show that it, too, has value.

In the end, I feel we were able to create moments where each type of attack can shine through the idea of optimal combat distance and also limiting certain consecutive attacks. 

Considering summons are in the game, how did you design them to work within the battle-royale setting? 

It all started with a notion: “Summons aren’t fun unless they are powerful.”

We use this as a base as we added unique characteristics to each of these Espers, ensuring they won’t all just be AOE attacks. We then defined clear advantages and disadvantages. By doing so, we ended up with what I feel is a perfect balance, where these Espers can be quite powerful if the player knows when to properly use them but could also potentially become a double-edged sword. 
Image courtesy of Square Enix
What role do you want NPC enemies like monsters and rogue robots to provide on the battlefield? 

Fundamentally speaking, these are meant to be a nuisance to the player. However, players can gain experience points from these enemies and then use them to level up their character or obtain various items, which can be quite beneficial. Players can choose whether they want to explore and find various items or take a little bit of a risk to defeat monsters.

Monsters tend to lurk outside of towns on the field, and they function as a means to replenish items or power up one’s character without necessarily going into town.

Can you elaborate on how you’re designing the game’s map?

The process of level design consists of placing mock models, then placing assets, then building the details—we would go through a kind of trial and error with each step.

For terrain creation, we made use of Unreal’s Landscape function and managed each area per sublevel, such as an area or asset. Lastly, we would go into adjusting the area by modifying the shape and texture with the Paint function.

Why was Unreal Engine a good fit for the game?

The engine was utilized for Final Fantasy VII Remake, and we were aware of the high quality of the graphics as well. On top of that, competitors in the industry were also using Unreal Engine for their mobile FPS games, and so we felt this was an optimal choice for creating an open-world environment. 

Are there any Easter eggs or fun surprises Final Fantasy VII fans can expect to see?

Yes. We would love for everyone to find these as you play through the game. There are various Easter eggs hidden throughout. Rather than us spoiling it for you here, we would love for players to find out on their own. 

Thanks for your time. How can we learn more about Final Fantasy VII: The First Soldier?

Players interested in learning more can either check out our official website or stay up to date with the latest on our Twitter

We hope you enjoy all of the action that Final Fantasy VII: The First Soldier has to offer!

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