I first learned about Final Fantasy VII in a bit of an odd way, through Kingdom Hearts. The characters were all super cool, and Sephiroth was a ridiculous arena boss. I loved everything about it, so I grabbed Final Fantasy X on PS2, beginning my foray into the series. Between Kingdom Hearts and the Advent Children movie, I was hooked, but never could bring myself to go back to the PS1 game even after buying it on my PSP Go. With FFVII Remake, I’ve been able to experience what changed gaming forever with a modern makeover. After a few hours of hands-on time with Rebirth, Square Enix isn’t just continuing the legacy of the original, they’re one-upping what they already did in Remake.
A few weeks ago I was invited out to a cool event in Los Angeles to play Rebirth. While there, we were privy to the first two chapters of the game. Given we had already played some of that first chapter in our previous preview last September, I don’t want to focus there. I have some thoughts on the fated “Mt. Nibel” mission, but this preview will largely focus on the experience Creative Business Unit I have crafted, and the open-world I got a lot more time with this go-around.
The opening level reminded me of what I remember from Final Fantasy VII Remake. It’s largely linear, but with a lot of story presence. There is a whole lot here to learn in Cloud’s recollection of the Nibelheim incident, and I’m glad they aren’t straying from the story beats that make this iconic tale. Even while progressing in more of a straight line here, the scale can be felt, especially on the trip up the mountain. Whether or not these kinds of levels will pop up constantly is yet to be seen, but the presentation is still top-notch. Overall, the chilling record of Nibelheim is immaculately handled, and in a way worthy of the status of this prominent mission.
Jumping to the city of Kalm, this is where you’ll start your journey into the larger open world. After dealing with a few narrative constructs to lead you outside the town, you’ll find yourself in the Grasslands. This was staggering in my first encounter, every bit as large as it looks. It’s jam-packed with detail, like the plants you trample through, or the broken brick of an abandoned bridge. Different areas have you collecting materials to use for crafting (or “transmutation”), along with finding treasures hidden in points of interest.
Getting to these locales also feels incredibly good, with Cloud being able to jump and mantle higher to reach spots you’d have missed in Remake, and intuitively climbing lesser ledges without a button press. The traversal feels more natural in Rebirth, in almost a Breath of the Wild way (just without the climbing). Oh, and you can swim, though the breadth of that function wasn’t available in my preview session. You can tell this was a focus for the team, and it was worth whatever effort they put in to make exploring the world as clean as possible.
Speaking of exploration, there’s a lot to look at in the Grasslands. The city of Kalm is eventually able to be returned to for odd jobs and more, but even outside there’s diversity in the landscape. Go behind Kalm and you’ll find a mountainous desert, go towards the main story and you’ll find a swampland, go to find the chocobos and grassy hills abound. I think what’s more insane about all of this is how it’s not even the full open world; there will be multiple separate open world locations. Learning that and experiencing the Grasslands makes me fully believe the 40+ hour story and 100+ hour full content length estimation.
When making a game open world, you’ll need to encounter creatures to fight (as obvious as that is). Unlike the 1997 game, you’ll have a lot more choice in these battles. For one, they are present on the map, so they’re easy to avoid in a pinch. Second, not every creature you can fight wants to engage you at all, so walking past is much simpler. Third, if you strike first, you get bonus damage.
I touched more on the combat and its structure in our September preview, but if you’ve played FFVII Remake, this isn’t going to be hard to learn. Something I didn’t expect was to feel as immersed in this build as the previous, or even Remake. I love the combat in Remake, as it feels weighty, but the developers at CBUI have brought their S+ game to Rebirth. I’m not sure if the controls are tighter, but I can tell you the sound design carries a lot more impact. There could be more particle effects due to the PS5, but in any case fights are more satisfying. Braver in particular is one of my favorite abilities for Cloud, and there’s a certain enjoyable feeling to it slamming down on my enemies in Rebirth. Kudos to the combat design team, you already nailed it in Remake, and you somehow one-upped yourselves here.
Even with the Grasslands being humongous, there still feels like there’s plenty to do. I hoped in my September preview that there wasn’t too much empty space, and if anything I felt lost for time in trying to decide what to do. Unfortunately a gaming trope returns: the tower that unlocks things on the map, but you don’t have to do anything but connect to it here, with no extra platforming or mini-game. This opens up World Intel (thanks to Chadley returning in Rebirth to offer up more neat activities). There are things like moogle intel, fiend intel, and more, smaller scale missions that will help you level up and allow Chadley to create more materia for you, along with new lore.
This is only a bit of what you’ll find in the Grasslands. At the heart of Final Fantasy VII are the characters, and as such you’ll find side missions that really grab your attention. There were a few available, but the one I chose to do involved a little girl working at the chocobo ranch. Her mother and father had disappeared when they were younger, but the girl remembered her mother making flower crowns for them. She asks if you could go pick specific flowers from a specific area, and after a few battles on the way, you accomplish that exactly.
While this doesn’t sound like much, it’s one of the heartfelt stories that tug at your heartstrings and make this story human. It extends to the characters as well, with Aerith feeling for this girl and Cloud’s less grumpy personality starting to poke through the surface. I wrote in my review about Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 on how much the narrative meant to me, especially the side missions, because they didn’t throw them together, but made real and personal stories you could connect with. That is present in this specific Rebirth side mission, and I get the feeling it will exist throughout. These characters are already expertly crafted and voiced (the entire cast was knocking it out of the park the entire preview), and CBUI is capitalizing on it.
There’s also another piece to this: relationships. Depending on your choices your relationship with different characters will change, denoted by an emoji-like face. Certain actions are going to make them happy, like Aerith when I helped the girl with flowers, but others could anger or sadden them. I don’t have any examples of the latter, but I’d imagine there are many. The good news is this one was pretty telegraphed, with Aerith’s reaction to the mission’s reveal by the brother of the girl sounding her interest. You’ll most likely have an idea if you’re about to tick someone off, which is appreciated. I’d assume these actions will lead us to the date at the Golden Saucer, so be wary.
Something really stuck with me at the end of the Grasslands, where you could engage with an intense boss. The fight itself is amazing, but I fell victim to it after a drawn out battle. Contrary to Remake, I didn’t feel like I was simply missing something. Instead, the thought of “I should go back into the world and level up” came through. This is something that was sorely missing in Remake, a core tenant of Final Fantasy. If you fight something tough, go back and level up until you can beat it. I love getting the old-school feel of Final Fantasy back, that grind that makes you feel accomplished when you finally defeat that foe that’s had your number.
Before we go, I wanted to touch on a few technical aspects of the game. As mentioned before, Rebirth is absolutely gorgeous. I spent my time in the graphics mode for the game, and didn’t feel like it impacted the experience at a lower frame rate. The performance mode did give that uptick in fps, but I noticed the visual downgrade right away. Whether a patch or two could help, time will tell, but I think playing in graphics mode will be the best experience. Also, Photo Mode seems to be available right at launch, so prepare for your social feeds being doused with FFVII Rebirth pics.
After a second time with Final Fantasy VII Rebirth, I again find myself longing to return. I’m replaying Remake, but after experiencing Rebirth, it feels like an appetizer. Appetizers are amazing, heck, I ordered one for my dinner the other night, but the incredible scale along with subtle and vivid improvements, have me hungry for the next course.
Final Fantasy VII Rebirth launches exclusively for PlayStation 5 on February 29th. You can pre-order a physical copy from Amazon here.
David Burdette is a gamer/writer/content creator from TN and Lead Editor for Gaming Trend. He loves Playstation, Star Wars, Marvel, and many other fandoms. He also plays way too much Call Of Duty. You can chat with him on Twitter @SplitEnd89.