Game of the Month is a USgamer series where we highlight our favorite game we played of the last 30-something days. In April, Final Fantasy 7 Remake surprised us in more ways than we anticipated.
I expected the worst from Final Fantasy 7 Remake. I'm unfortunately cynical by nature; I am not a fan of the other recent action-RPG from Square Enix, Final Fantasy 15. Knowing the brain behind Kingdom Hearts was co-directing it—a series I've had a love-hate relationship for literally over a decade—I steeled myself. There was no conceivable way this would be wholly good, right? Luckily, Final Fantasy 7 Remake delighted me. And it delighted most fans around the world, even with its bold twists.
It is not without its flaws, of course, even if we have picked it as USgamer's Game of the Month for April 2020. Its tedious dungeons and lackluster side quests are the big marks against it that resulted in our 3.5 / 5 score. But it's a fascinating game in 2020—one that carries forth the lessons learned from not just Final Fantasy 15, but Final Fantasy 13, as many have observed. From the first instance I staggered an enemy, I was taken back to the boss against Cid Raines in Final Fantasy 13—a boss fight that flipped my party into using the characters I often left on the sidelines, like Sazh. Final Fantasy 13's tough bosses and ATB-infused combat still stands, to me at least, as one of the best battle systems in Final Fantasy history; right next to Final Fantasy Tactics and the truest GOAT, Final Fantasy 5. (Shame about the rest of the game though.)
It's the combat that really cements Final Fantasy 7 Remake as another great game in the Final Fantasy lineage. It's a surprising addition too, considering Final Fantasy's past forays into action-RPGs and other real-time combat. From Final Fantasy 15 to Final Fantasy Type-0, Final Fantasy's action has generally been wanting. Final Fantasy 7 Remake's seismic combat shift to action was the chief reason for my skepticism, really—even if I did leave my E3 demo last year feeling cautiously optimistic about it.
Other recent action-RPGs from Square Enix, such as the floatiness of Kingdom Hearts, haven't appealed to me. They never lean on what I want most out of a good action game—combos and legit strategy, baby—nor feel particularly good to play, in a tactile sense. Final Fantasy 7 Remake delivers though, and it delivers in a way most action-RPGs haven't.
It's because I had to think about every encounter. With the Assess Materia always implanted on Cloud somewhere, I was always analyzing my foes, reading not just their elemental weaknesses, but the best way to stagger them. It reminded me of The Witcher 3's Bestiary, only more condensed. For some foes, Assess even taught me what items I could use the Steal ability to attain, even landing some unique weapons for my party. In Final Fantasy 7 Remake, I'm never just aimlessly hacking and slashing—or at least, I wasn't from Chapter 8 onward, which was where the game really started making me consider Cloud's entire moveset, like the slower but stronger Punisher Mode.
It's the pacing of even a minor monster scramble that makes Final Fantasy 7 Remake's combat great. With the ATB meters, action slows to a crawl when deciding a special action—be it a magic spell or a unique ability. The ability to hop between characters meant I was often flipping to Tifa on default, as her quick nature and zippy combos were easy and a blast to chain together. Which brings me to what really makes Final Fantasy 7 Remake special: It lets the characters's personalities shine in the action, and not just in the story.
In the original Final Fantasy 7, the battle system is highly customizable. If anything, the Materia is the star: the characters are just embodying the abilities and magic that's embedded into them, rather than rising up on their own character alone. They forever stick to one side of the screen; we never really feel a difference of Tifa's fist-first combat compared to Barret's ranged gun-arm. It all pretty much feels the same.
Final Fantasy 7 Remake corrects this: the differences in playstyles between Cloud, Barret, Tifa, and Aerith are more evident than ever. As I embody or direct the party, they each feel like they fit a class-type role of sorts, though one that's helpfully flexible thanks to Materia. Take Barret, for instance: My ranged-tank-healer man. His build is odd by nature—I mean, c'mon, a ranged tank?—but having the Provoke Materia on him led him to often draw the fire away from whomever was in my party. As the natural born leader he is, Barret is always ready to take one for the team, even in the midst of battle.
My interpretation of Barret is just one of many though. A friend told me they coupled Magnify with Haste on a character, an ability that hastens the ATB meter's fill rate, making their whole party an ATB-meter filling juggernaut. The battle system naturally lends itself to creative builds like these, similar to how the original Final Fantasy 7's Materia system was. Only here, the characters themselves' performance matches differently per Materia, rather than them just feeling like a funnel for one's favorite Materia. Final Fantasy 7 Remake reviewer and Editor-in-Chief of USgamer Kat Bailey told me that she used Tifa as her main magic dealer for instance, which runs completely counter to how I used her, and shows how varied every player's approach to the battle system is.
For me, Tifa is a menace with the Refocus Materia, a limit break that gives her three ATB meters rather than just two. With Refocus, Tifa can do her Chi trap, then spinning kick, chained into an uppercut, topped off with a divekick. Tifa may not have had a big sword like Cloud, but she was my main damage-dealer in my playthrough of Final Fantasy 7 Remake. The other characters were nothing to sneeze at either—my Aerith was something of an offense-support, healing often with Pray while dealing extra potent magic; Cloud easily my most balanced with some clutch parry-like moves. The important thing is that no matter what clever Materia combo is equipped per party member, they all individually feel unique.
It may not have been turn-based, like the majority of my favorite RPGs (especially over Final Fantasy's own series), but it made me consider its combat more than most other action-RPGs. For that, I'm so grateful to it. Even now, weeks removed from rolling credits, I'm tempted to jump back in to complete the rest of the Shinra combat challenges, and the sidequests in Chapter 14 that I wholly ignored before charging into the endgame. Maybe I'll get back to those someday—or try my hand at Hard Mode—but the fact that the combat is what's drawing me back to Final Fantasy 7 Remake is something that I never expected to say. It even made those awful dungeons worthwhile because hey, the fights are fun.
As Kat wrote earlier this week, Final Fantasy 7 Remake really is more than the sum of its parts. Holistically, it has steep flaws, from the ugly skyboxes to the clunky execution of some new story beats, but by the end of the year, I bet I'll still be looking back fondly on Final Fantasy 7 Remake. It may even be gunning to be my Game of the Year. Who knows how I'll feel, and the rest of the team at USgamer, by the time December rolls around.