The first time I landed in a game of Final Fantasy VII: The First Soldier, my biggest opponent was the clutter on my phone screen. The game’s number of touchscreen controls includes one analog stick to move, one button to shoot, another button for melee attack, one to jump and park, and one to crouch and hide. Get close to a treasure chest and you can open it with another button. There is the inventory menu to switch between weapons and the menu to use your consumables to heal. And there’s the section of the screen dedicated to Materia, the little orbs you can find that give Final Fantasy VII characters the ability to use magic.
Since The First Soldier is a mobile game, all those things are included on screen, occupying the same space in which you are expected to beat other players. It’s cumbersome – half the time, my thumbs were getting in the way of the action. The other half, I couldn’t remember which button to press to summon a few lightning bolts in combat or blast my way out of danger in no time.
Plenty of battle royale games, including big-market favorites like Fortnite and PUBG, have mobile versions. And many players enjoy it, even if they reach a similar complexity to The First Soldier. But Square Enix’s Final Fantasy take on the genre brings even more systems into play than those other games with the addition of classes, magic, and mounts. It all feels like too much for my small phone screen to handle. Which is a shame, because The First Soldier is an immersive take on battle royale. A Final Fantasy version of ‘last-player-standing’ is a lot of fun – provided you can press the buttons you want and see the enemies you’re fighting.
The idea behind The First Soldier is that agents from Shinra, Final Fantasy VII’s energy megacorp with its own private army, compete against each other as part of elite special forces training. SOLDIER, in the game’s universe, refers to a division of high-ranking agents who are feared on the battlefield. Cloud, the main character of FFVII, is one such SOLDIER, as is Sephiroth, the game’s incredibly powerful villain. So, to some extent, this is the story of how those legendary agents first rose above the ordinary Shinra army: by fighting on huge battle royale battlefields.
In practice, this is pretty much like any BR you’ve played, if you’re familiar with the genre. Players dive into a massive map (in this case, the Midgar suburban slums, complete with a few recognizable places from Final Fantasy VII Remake) and search for weapons and items to fight against other competitors they encounter, with the last player or team standing is declared the winner. Over time, the playing field shrinks and anyone caught outside the “ring” that defines the new battlefield takes damage. Much like games like PUBG or Fortnite, you can grab vehicles placed randomly around the map to make the journey a bit faster, although this will come at the cost of standing out to other players. You can also quickly park on most vertical surfaces by running and jumping on them, allowing you to change heights, set traps for players and dodge obstacles.
Just like in other BR games, you use firearms to do most of your battles. The First Soldier is a third-person shooter at heart, and there are different types of guns and rarities that determine their effectiveness. Constantly seeking out better weapons, or getting them from the corpses of your enemies, is the key to surviving long enough to claim victory. Overall, the weapons in The First Soldier feel pretty good, and the differences in the way they handle – like the heavy recoil but high damage from a submachine gun, compared to the longer but less crushing assault rifle – make your choices of what you need to bring makes sense. Add to that the fact that you can only carry two weapons at a time and your weapon decisions have a big effect on the game.
However, where The First Soldier stands out is with all the Final Fantasy VII elements it adds to the BR formula. In addition to weapons, you can find and carry up to three Materia orbs, each representing a different magical spell. You can cast magic with mana that you recover over time or find in destructible boxes, just like in FFVII Remake, and having certain types of magic at your disposal can be a huge game-changer. A Thunder spell blasts an entire area of electricity, limiting your enemy’s movements, while a Fire spell is akin to chopping a bomb at someone which makes them fly. With things like Gravity to lock players in place, Bio for poisoning anyone unlucky enough to wander into its noxious cloud, and Cure to heal yourself, magic adds a deep layer of strategy to the usual battle royal fireworks. Just like in FF7, you can upgrade your Materia to make it more effective by finding copies of the Materia you already have, giving you an extra incentive to constantly loot the world around you and the players you fight.
You also choose a “class” for your character at the start of each match, which has its own caveats. In addition to the weapons you find, each character gains a melee attack, which is determined by your class, plus a special ability. The Knight class gets a melee dash attack that also gives you a short shield against attacks, for example; the Mage class can drop a mysterious ward to the ground that quickly recharges mana; the Ninja can briefly become invisible to sneak away from opponents or move during combat. There are five classes in total, and the longer you survive with one, the higher your class level, boosting your attacks and skills as a reward for staying alive until the end of the match.
And finally, there are accessory items you can find for your character, which add special bonuses such as protection from damage outside the ring, resistance to certain types of magic, or better luck finding money on the ground to use in the many vending machines from The First Soldier. machinery.
All of those systems bring the RPG ideas from Final Fantasy 7 Remake to The First Soldier, and they really help freshen up the battle royale formula, even if it means a bunch of controls competing for screen space on your phone. The possibilities of things like surprising an opponent with a fireball, unloading them with a shotgun, and then closing their retreat with a Thunder spell make for heart-pounding, strategic combat. Combat in The First Soldier has its similarities to other BR games on the market, but the addition of magic and class abilities, plus accessories and the in-match level-up systems, means it also has some of the best elements of FF7 Remake. gets. There’s just nothing else that really loves it.
When you can execute your attack commands quickly and smoothly, fighting against opponents feels great. There’s a lot to keep in mind, but once you get the hang of using it all under fire, combat is gripping, intense, and unpredictable. You can also perform some really fun strategies like trapping an enemy in a doorway with a fireball to trap them in or placing a poison field near cover to flush an opponent out of hiding.
The problem is things get hectic on a touchscreen, especially as you fight to keep the camera focused on the action and compete with the controls to see what’s going on. The camera in particular is a big deal, as you have to swipe your screen to rotate it, which prevents you from using that thumb to use other controls at the same time. It can take melee completely off the table, more or less, because the proximity you need to attack other players means you can zoom past them, placing them behind you and thus out of sight.
Due to its touchscreen issues, The First Soldier improves by a huge leap if you use a Bluetooth controller to play it. Plugging in a controller changed my experience dramatic for the better. Suddenly I was able to perform any attack I wanted whenever I wanted, while keeping the camera pointed where I needed it. There may still be too many controls to handle elegantly – between shooting, consumables and throwing magic, you often have to hold down one button while pressing another to have enough commands to get it all done – but it using a controller was a huge step forward in making The First Soldier work. The controller feels like a significant advantage over touchscreen control, even if you can just reliably manipulate the camera so you can see who you’re fighting with. Returning to touch controls after using a controller shows how much the game strains the real estate of a phone screen.
However, once I could see everything I was doing and reliably execute the attacks I wanted, it became clear how well all of Final Fantasy VII’s ideas work within the battle royale framework. Magic, guns and swords go damn well together, and The First Soldier becomes a really fun take on the BR formula that’s both familiar and fresh.
It just feels like The First Soldier is a game that pushes the limits of the mobile medium. Not only is the game overrun with controls, but The First Soldier also includes some extra systems that are nice in theory, but in practice make the game a bit impractical for a medium meant to be played in short bursts. We haven’t even touched on the entire chocobo breeding mini-game of The First Soldier, where you find eggs in special treasure chests in a match, hatch them, and then combine chocobos to get just the amount of stats you want. The birds you decide to keep can be marked for in-game stakes, so if you find a chocobo sign while playing a match, you can summon your bird into battle to transport you around; you can even attack other players with chocobos, and they can be devastating if you can get close to a target. It’s a fun system that you can either engage with or ignore completely and further help make The First Soldier feel like something new and different in BR space, but it’s something else to keep in mind if you’re in matches or to mess around with in between runs, when you’re probably only signing up for a quick match or two on your phone.
I enjoy The First Soldier and I’ll keep it in my BR rotation, but it already seems like a game I’ll struggle to get better at. This is a battle royale title that’s good enough, smart enough, and different enough to attract and keep a healthy player base – it’s bursting at the seams. On PC or console, The First Soldier would take a well-deserved place against other BR powerhouses, but on mobile it’s just too tight.