While Fortnite remains banned from Apple’s walled garden, there’s no shortage of battle royales to play on Android and iOS devices, especially with big-names like Call of Duty: Mobile and PUBG Mobile available. But we now have a new PvEvP experience that fills the Epic Games-sized hole left in the App Store. It comes from developer Ateam and Square Enix in the form of Final Fantasy 7: The First Soldier, a free-to-play battle royale that’s pretty much Fortnite without the building shenanigans. That’s a good thing.
Taking place some 30 years before the events of Final Fantasy 7 Remake, The First Soldier sees you jumping into the shoes of a customizable character to do battle against 74 other players, in a world full of dangerous environmental hazards, like bombs, lesser dragons, and the like. The objective is to be the last one standing, and how you go about that depends on your playstyle. Do you choose the straight-forward warrior and charge in with a sword, or do you select the more acrobatic ninja and disappear into the shadows? Supplementing the game’s five different combat styles are aspects familiar to Final Fantasy fans: magic spells via Materia, which you pick up around the world alongside ammo and guns, and quick traversal using various vehicles such as motorcycles and even adorable-ass Chocobo. (Sadly, while they do have health bars, I can’t confirm whether Chocobo can die after taking damage. Regardless, I hope they don’t! That’d be way too heartbreaking for me.)
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But despite the familiar trappings, The First Soldier has a lot more in common with Fortnite or PUBG. From jumping out of a helicopter on Midgard—the game’s single yet large map—to aiming down the sights of an assault rifle you looted from a chest or a dead player, playing The First Soldier feels strange if you approach this as just another Final Fantasy game. Close-quarters melee puts it in-line with more action-oriented experiences like Final Fantasy 7 Remake and Final Fantasy Crisis Core, but the FPS elements add a dynamic layer that tasks you to think differently about engaging in combat.
Because more often than not, players in The First Soldier are strapped! On top of selecting one of five combat styles—Monk (Tifa), Ninja (Yuffie), Ranger, Sorcerer (Aerith), or Warrior (literally every soldier under the sun)—you can arm yourself with all kinds of guns. It’s a little weird wielding a shotgun in a Final Fantasy game, but it makes sense when a warrior is slashing their way toward you. As they always say, never bring a knife (or a sword) to a gunfight.
However, it’s here where the imbalance between melee and ranged combat rears its head. You almost never stand a chance against a gun, no matter how skilled up-close you are. And it doesn’t help that, because you’re playing on a touchscreen, controls are finicky at best and unresponsive at worst. Using your left thumb to control character movement and your right thumb to both attack/shoot and operate the camera is frustratingly cumbersome, and since the lock-on doesn’t track enemies, you’re constantly swiping your screen to spin the camera to see where they are. Like some more frustrating BR games, it’s possible to get killed without even knowing who did it until the killcam—which doesn’t help you improve or learn.
That’s not to say combat is terrible. It’s the opposite: combat is hella fun! Each of the five styles feels unique, with neither one having any particular advantage over the others. And coming out of a skirmish victorious is a helluva rush. It’s just a shame The First Soldier is a mobile-only game because this would totally benefit from a bigger screen and a gamepad. Thankfully, it does feature controller support and works with tablets like the iPad, but there’s so much happening, from summoning beasts such as Ifrit to fighting in three-person squads, that it can be hard parsing through it all on a small screen.
Still, I’m having a great time with The First Soldier. It’s the kind of Final Fantasy game I didn’t even know I wanted until it launched, an intriguing mix of iconic series elements—like the Final Fantasy 7 main battle theme, which roars up every time you drop from the helicopter onto Midgard—and emergent Fortnite-like gameplay to create something quite engaging. It feels like Final Fantasy and that’s really all a fan of the franchise can ask for, even if it plays closer to PUBG Mobile. Despite me wanting The First Soldier on any console, Ateam and Square Enix kinda knocked this one out of the park. There are even costumes modeled after well-known characters like Cloud and Rufus, with both male and female versions to really get you in-tune with the series’ lore.
Final Fantasy: The First Soldier is the latest drop in the JRPG series. The upcoming entry is Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin, which hits most major platforms on March 18, 2022. Otherwise, there’s plenty of Final Fantasy XIV to go around, especially with the MMORPG’s biggest expansion yet, Endwalker, launching on December 7. Then there’s the next mainline title, Final Fantasy XVI, though details have been sparse since July.