Final Fantasy VII Rebirth hands-on preview — Of swords and Sephiroth

I remember having a conspiracy theory that Square Enix was holding onto any form of Final Fantasy VII remake in case of dire circumstances. That didn’t turn out to be true, with FFVII Remake being announced back in 2015 amid a flurry of incredible E3 reveals like Kingdom Hearts III and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. Things weren’t exactly how I expected them to occur either, with this remake being split into three parts. Why would Square Enix go for this kind of shameless cash grab?

Then, we got our hands on the game in 2020 and boy, were we wrong in our assumptions. This wasn’t just a remake, but somewhat of a reboot, with an alternate timeline allowing the team to take liberties with the story. It also only covered the beginning of the original game, mostly confined to the Midgar section. I’m truly amazed at what the developers have done, with a genius take on something they could have as easily phoned in.

It’s time to move into the next section of Final Fantasy VII, titled “Rebirth”. This next chapter looks to be massive, with Director Naoki Hamaguchi promising one hundred hours of content. After spending over an hour playing the game, it’s easy to see how big Creative Business Unit I is looking to go.

I was privy to two separate demos. One was a shorter, more guided story level, and the other a large open world section. Cooler still, the story mission was a flashback to Cloud’s time in Nibelheim, meaning Sephiroth was a party member. I was encouraged to start there, as a way of onboarding along with experiencing a part of the story.

The story demo, “The Fated Mt. Nibel Mission”, opens with Cloud and Sephiroth investigating a failed Mako reactor. If you’ve played any Final Fantasy game before, you know visually astounding cutscenes are always in play, and this mission’s beginning doesn’t disappoint. I’ve said it to many before, it feels like we’re at a moment where the movie Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children is now playable. I didn’t know that we’d ever hit that point, but with FFVII Rebirth (along with FFVII Remake before it), we’re in it.

This all continues into the gameplay, and even being an early preview build (this is the first demo) it looks graphically impressive. There are two different modes for the game, a graphics and performance one, but I was asked to use graphics for now. I’m sure there’s still some tweaking going on back at CBUI, but after how well everything went with FFVII Remake, I have complete confidence that 60fps is achievable.

I have to admit, I haven’t played FFVII Remake in quite some time, so when the first challenging enemy appeared (the first couple of bugs took only a few hits to down), I looked really lost. There are a lot of systems in play that, if you haven’t recently played the previous entry, might confuse you. That said, it didn’t take long for me to find my footing within the first thirty minutes of play, which speaks well to how FFVII Rebirth communicates its mechanics to you, whether through tutorial pop-ups or UI design.

Once you start swinging the Buster Sword (or Masamune), things begin to flow like a violent ballet. That’s not just a metaphor for the dancing of swords, but of the management of your systems in order to dispatch even the toughest creatures and opponents. Pressing square to hack at your enemy will only go so far; you need to utilize every ability at your disposal. After you land a few attacks, your ATB gauge will build, allowing you to spend energy to use special moves, spells like Fire or Thunder, and use items (although I’m not the biggest fan of my item use being tied to it).

Furthering the connection in systems, expending the ATB gauge fills a synergy meter, which can then be used in tag team attacks for a lot of damage. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Final Fantasy game without Limit Breaks, your “ultimate” that is super stylish and deadly. This one is similar to the ATB gauge, but fills much slower. There are even Guard abilities, other synergy attacks available when you’re guarding that allow you more tag teaming while defending yourself. Everything flows, and that makes it not only easy to understand, but also makes it engaging and fun.

The cinematic nature of all of the big fights is especially breathtaking. When it comes to the design behind them, it’s simply perfect. The breaks chosen to give you a visual feast when removed from the action work flawlessly. Cloud and Sephiroth’s back and forth during the story mission is also excellent – even if Sephiroth ticked me off by calling out my lack of defense in a fight. Another example of great design: while fighting with a Materia Guardian, I quickly found Cloud stuck in a claw, being held out of reach and with no way of escape. I had to swap over to Sephiroth, and use a Fire spell to break the grip, freeing Cloud up again so I could switch back over.

Oh, did I forget to bring up PLAYING as Sephiroth? As was with FFVII Remake, you can switch back and forth between party members. Each has their own advantages, so sticking to one is only to your detriment. We’ve all dreamed of using Sephiroth in a Final Fantasy game, and there is definitely a feeling of power the second you swing his Masamune. His additional ability charges up special finishers, which unlocks your Limit Break even faster. It’s everything you could have wanted in having Final Fantasy’s most recognizable villain available at a button press.

As you can tell, there was a lot going on in this story part of the demo, but it was only eighteen minutes of my playthrough. Once I got into the open world section, I really didn’t know what to do, mainly because of how vast it all was. You’ve seen the trailers, so you know the scale looks absolutely massive, and I can confirm to you it is. We didn’t see much of the map given the old “fog of war” trick covering places you haven’t been, but I could certainly scroll quite a ways around, giving me the impression we ain’t seen nothing yet. Just the area I was in felt huge, and I’m sure many points of interest weren’t even in play yet, meaning there’s even more to explore.

Here, I had the option of going on with a few different party members, with my choices being Red XIII, Barrett, Tifa, or Aerith. The best part of the start of this area is riding the chocobos, and your entire party does it, even Red XIII, which made me laugh. It certainly makes exploration easier, and you can still pick up items while on chocoback. They even have gear for customization, so I’m sure there will be a lot to earn as you play FFVII Rebirth. There are also Chocobo Stops you’ll find in the wild. Once you raise the sign for them, they function as fast travel points. Oh, and you can pet the little chocobo chick that’s there.

While I didn’t find a ton of side quests in the world (some stuff has to be saved for launch, people), I never felt far from the next POI. The worst thing about any open world is for it to feel empty, and whether it was creatures to fight, jobs to complete, or materials to gather (Chocobo can also smell around and dig for things), it felt balanced in the exploration. My only caveat would be that I only really engaged in timed tough encounters called Fiend Sightings (it was the only activity I saw available on the map), so hopefully there’s more variation on the map as a whole. Again, the scale and scope is here, so there’s plenty of opportunity to fill it full.

This section of the demo ended with my party taking on a big boss, and boy was it fun. Just like the Materia Guardian I mentioned earlier, there are so many stages to what is going on, blending the cinematic with some great tactical fighting. It’s awesome to see how they’ve managed to keep a little bit of that calculated feel in the combat, even with the swap from turn-based to action. Cloud, Barrett, and Red XIII had their hands full with this “Terror of the Deep” casting a Water Cell constantly that would trap a party member, or grabbing one in its tail fin. Figuring out the best way to take on these creatures is a blast in FFVII Rebirth, especially if you’re like me and hit a moment where almost your entire party is downed and you bring it back from the brink of defeat.

The entire demo is backed by an amazing soundtrack, and I can’t end this preview without calling it out. We all love the music behind the series, and what they have here is special. Simple exploration is made better by it, and the battle sequences feature moving crescendos that heighten your senses. I’ve often talked about how a good soundtrack is important, and Final Fantasy VII Rebirth’s already seems to be a masterpiece.

In the past, I’ve had a hard time finishing Final Fantasy games, but I doubt that will be the case with Rebirth. I’ve been home for almost a week since our demo, and all I can think about is playing it again. Time to break out FFVII Remake and prepare yourselves, the next chapter is coming soon. Final Fantasy VII Rebirth arrives exclusively on PlayStation 5 on February 29th, 2024.

Lead Video Game Editor | [email protected]

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.

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