When Final Fantasy VII Remake launched in 2020, it felt like the realization of an impossible dream. Not only did it feel like it was brought to life based on years of fan requests, but it also largely lived up to sky-high expectations due to its generally positive reception. Throw in a good story expansion with the Yuffie-focused Intermission and the series enters its second chapter, Rebirth, with momentum. To find out how the sequel is shaping up, I visited Square Enix’s studio in Los Angeles to play two parts of Final Fantasy VII Rebirth: a flashback to the ill-fated Mt. Nibel mission and an open-world section Outskirts of Junon.
The past is prologue
The past is prologue
My first demo is a shorter, linear excerpt set years before the events of Remake. Cloud, still a member of SOLDIER, climbs Mount Nibel, led by Tifa and accompanied by his mentor and future nemesis Sephiroth. At this point, Sephiroth isn’t completely out of it, while this younger Cloud displays an unusually chipper demeanor. The group makes its way to a Mako reactor on Nibel’s summit, where numerous monster battles get me used to fighting again.
Rebirth plays the same way as Remake; Its entertaining mix of stylish action and turn-based mechanics remains an exciting and strategic treat with a new facet: Synergy Skills. These attacks combine the power of two party members to unleash a flashy tag team attack, provided you have an ATB bar to spend. For example, one of Cloud and Sephiroth’s synergistic abilities is called Dualblade Dance, and it plays out like a cinematic and eye-catching depiction of tandem sword fighting, with both warriors eviscerating a target. Some synergy abilities are defensive; When playing the second demo, Aerith teams up with Cloud or Barrett to use Bodyguard, where her partner acts as a human shield while she attacks from a distance.
Synergy abilities encourage players to experiment with different party combinations. On a related note, you can now create saved group lineups that you can instantly switch between in-game. Need to switch your Cloud/Barrett/Aerith crew to Cloud/Red XIII/Tifa? It’s just a button press away and saves you having to go to the menu.
Like the previous game, you can switch control of your party members by pressing the d-pad. I do this a lot because it’s a lot of fun playing as Sephiroth. The silver-haired swordsman is a nearly overpowered juggernaut, boasting a barrage of lightning-fast, long-range slashing attacks, a teleporting dodge that moves him toward and away from targets, and his powerful Octaslash Limit Break. Landing hits also allows me to perform finishing moves like Pierce and Sword Dance, and performing these moves fills up the maximum gauge. Pressing R1 puts him in Retaliation Stance, a move that allows him to block attacks by pressing the square button at the right moment.
He’s so good that I severely neglected Cloud on my second playthrough of this section, but that doesn’t mean the blonde hero is a pushover. He can still switch between the balanced approach of Operator Mode and the powerful, tank-like attacks of his Punisher Mode. It’s a pleasure to cut down enemies with his massive Buster Sword, as I have access to several of his abilities including Braver and Cross Slash.
Given the centrality of this flashback to the overall story, this section is more story focused and more in line with the corridor-style levels in Remake. For the most part, while climbing and scaling rock walls using platformer-style handholds, I simply mow down every monster in front of me while listening to Cloud and Sephiroth’s banter. The biggest change is an environmental puzzle that requires me to activate an elevator by clearing Mako gas from a small area by pushing and pulling a giant, heavy air purifier. It’s not the most exciting sequence.
Luckily, a fight against the area’s boss, the many-legged Materia Hunter, is a much more exciting affair. It’s an uphill battle; Eventually it climbs the ceiling, so I have to target its limbs with magic to bring it back down to earth. The battle also includes some standout cinematic moments and playful exchanges between Cloud and Sephiroth that are as bizarre as they are entertaining.
Between standard attacks, stance/form changes, individual character abilities, magic, limit breaks, and now synergy abilities, Rebirth offers an almost overwhelming amount of attack options. I’m still debating whether it’s better to use ATB meters for a synergy attack rather than, say, Cloud’s Cross Slash, since on the surface they all seem equally flashy and effective. Battles remain chaotic affairs filled with sensory overload special effects that can make it difficult to analyze what’s happening, but using Tactical Mode to pause the action remains a useful tool for choosing orders carefully while catching your breath. But if you enjoyed the over-the-top action of Remake, then Rebirth takes the spectacle up a few notches.
A new old world
A new old world
The next demo takes me to an open-world coastal stretch outside the town of Junon – or technically Under Junon, the name of the peaceful fishing village nearby. I have the full party of Cloud, Tifa, Aerith, Barrett and the now playable Red XIII. While walking is working, I decide to press R1 to summon a fleet of Chocobos for us to ride. Red XIII sitting semi-awkwardly on his feathered steed is an unintentionally hilarious sight. In addition to speeding up movement on the ground, Chocobos can also cross certain bodies of water to reach islands laden with treasure. In addition, they can locate and unearth buried treasure. If a question mark symbol appears above their heads, it means there are treats buried nearby. Holding down the D-Pad will command the Chocobo to sniff around while pressing R3 to create a scent trail leading to the right spot for your bird to start digging.
Although I can go straight to Under Junon, I choose to explore the beautifully detailed world. Like Remake, you can practically see millions of dollars pouring out of every highly detailed objective and heavy particle effect combat encounter. Rebirth is a great game even if you opt for the lower resolution Performance mode at 60fps instead of the 4K graphics of Quality mode.
During my wanderings I stumble upon world intelligence missions. As I enter certain zones, a mysterious AI-like creature called MAI lures me to defeat a specific enemy and collect data about them. Defeating these designated enemies earns rewards like equipment and crafting materials, and completing objectives like winning battles within a time limit or suppressing or staggering the enemy sweetens the pot. I’m not sure what the story is behind these missions and what incentive there is to complete them all in one area, and the explanation may have to wait until release day.
Speaking of crafting, a new menu feature called “Item Transmuter” lets you convert collected materials into helpful items like various healing potions, phoenix down, and more. This gives you Transmuter XP, which increases your overall crafting proficiency, although I’m not sure about the benefits yet.
Baby chocobos also roam these lands, and if you spot them, be sure to follow these adorable animals as they guide you to fallen chocobo stops. Raising these signs converts them into fast travel points and rewards you with gold feathers, which you can exchange at ranches for equipment to equip your chocobos. I found one such ranch and was allowed to edit my chocobo’s color and clothing, such as different hats, chest plates, and leg wraps. Oh, and you can also pet the baby chocobos when the job is done, so be sure to do that.
Fighting monsters gives me a comprehensive look at the group’s fighting prowess, with a few new twists coming from the returning heroes. Aerith can now charge her Assault ability to unleash a familiar to aid her on the battlefield. Tifa’s unbridled strength can amplify her triangle ability up to three times, while also increasing the number of attacks that can be chained together. Barrett’s Overcharge instantly replenishes a large portion of his ATB meter, especially when used immediately after executing an attack or ability.
Red He has powerful claw slashes that can be charged to unleash a spinning slashing attack. Protection from attacks fills his revenge meter, which can be spent to activate revenge mode. In this state, Red XIII gains increased attack power and evasion speed.
When I arrive in Under Junon, the party is stopped by Rhonda, the village’s tough mayor and sheriff. Rhonda’s identification scanner immediately detects the group’s sizable bounty, but luckily the city is no friend of Shirna. “We know when to turn a blind eye,” she says, lowering the tension. Instead, Rhonda invites the group to rest at the nearby inn. The R&R will have to wait; Through various shenanigans involving a dolphin and a certain boastful Wutai ninja, which I won’t spoil (it’s weird), a sea monster called the “Terror of the Deep” suddenly attacks the village, prompting Cloud and Co. to intervene caused.
The resulting boss fight represents the greatest test of my skills. Not only can this beast dive under the docks to launch surprise attacks, but it can also trap allies in spheres of water that you must attack to free them. By unleashing a torrent of individual skills, synergistic abilities and limit-pushing, the beast will ultimately be brought down in a long battle.
While it’s difficult to get a sense of the scope and narrative by playing two out-of-context sections, Final Fantasy VII Rebirth retains the combat I loved in its predecessor and freshens it up with fun new mechanics and attacks. The open-world activities were a decent change of pace, and while I’m excited to see what else Square fills its worlds with, the main narrative will always be the biggest draw alongside the action. And so far, Rebirth has the talent and intrigue to keep me counting the days until it shakes up the story even further.