Preview: Final Fantasy VII Rebirth

6 Feb 2024

When it comes to upcoming games in February, one would be hard pressed to find a title with more eyes on it than Final Fantasy VII Rebirth. Coming hot off the heels of July’s Final Fantasy XVI, the second installment of the Final Fantasy VII remake trilogy has been leaving onlookers with no shortage of questions about how the sequel will handle the next chunk of its source material.

How will the original’s world map be handled now that the party has left Midgar behind? What about the pacing? Which mechanics will be carried over wholesale? Which will be tweaked or expanded upon? How will the new characters play? Just how different will Rebirth be from Remake?

I was asking myself these same questions prior to making my trek to Los Angeles last month. There, I had the opportunity to attend an event entirely centered around Rebirth, meet some great people (including producer Yoshinori Kitase and director Naoki Hamaguchi), and leap at the chance to get some hands-on experience with the game’s opening hours.

Although my extended preview wasn’t quite enough to answer the above questions in full, it was more than enough to provide a strong idea of not only what the game proper will feel like to play, but what it’s trying to accomplish with regard to its status as both a sequel and a remake.

So let’s mosey, shall we?

One immediate takeaway from my play session was how little time Rebirth took to establish the events of the previous game. It falls shy of dropping the player in medias res, but outside of the story recap available via the main menu, the preview jumped right into the events following the ending cutscene of the Intermission DLC. And in keeping with this notion further, the emphasis on presentation in Remake is still very present in Rebirth. Each cutscene was slickly animated and thoughtfully framed in a way you’d come to expect if you played Remake, with a big highlight on character interactions.

Perhaps most importantly on that front, Rebirth still seems to be retaining the silly, almost irreverent attitude in its narrative that made the original Final Fantasy VII so charming. It isn’t a constant goof-fest—the preview knew when to pull back and establish the gravity of situations when necessary—but it’s an attention to detail that goes a long way in keeping Final Fantasy VII Rebirth feeling… well, feeling like Final Fantasy VII.

And while we’re on the topic of attention to detail, this opening section was chock full of it. When it comes to the environments, practically everything you could recall from the original’s top-down, pre-rendered backdrops is included in some form and then expanded upon to bring it to life in the third dimension. Even the minimap has received a significant upgrade, eschewing the vague blue grid aesthetic of the last game for fully detailed, colorful illustrations.

I spent an obscene amount of my playtime simply bumbling around the city of Kalm, taking in the sights, exploring every nook and cranny I could find, and listening to what NPCs had to say as I shopped for gear and checked out the new menus. There was also quite a bit to do that didn’t involve just looking around, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

Much to my surprise, leaving the confines of Kalm and stepping into the surrounding grasslands revealed a wide open field on a scale larger than anything we saw in Remake. Naturally the game had given me a nearby objective to aim for, but the openness provided a very strong pull to simply pick a direction and go. Packs of enemies roamed the landscape waiting to be fought, structures dotted the area promising loot, and the geography sported verticality to traverse along the way while plotting my next path.

It was a very different feeling from the more straightforward trajectory of the previous game, and one that was facilitated by a smoother movement system as well. Cloud is now able to vault over and climb on top of a lot of objects in his path with comparatively few invisible walls to contend with. Keeping a vigilant eye for new paths was consistently rewarded with new materia, items, or resources to expend with the new crafting system, and it was very easy to lose track of time as I kept seeing places I wanted to head to and enemies I wanted to fight.

When it came to the combat itself, the core of the battle system was very much intact. Assessing enemy weaknesses, expending ATB gauges to exploit them, and then inflicting as much damage as possible within the stagger window is still very much the through line of battles. But there are a few new toys thrown into the mix as well, like a unique skill tree for each character, team-up attacks, and synergy skills which effectively function like a shared group limit break resulting in immense, flashy damage and powerful temporary buffs. Synergy abilities seem as though they’ll be some of the most powerful tools in the player’s arsenal, with some increasing stagger duration and even granting unlimited MP for a time.

Another particular standout was the perfect block system, which I found to be reminiscent of the Just Guard mechanic from Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII. While some attacks were exempt from it, precise timing would completely nullify any and all damage you’d receive. It made for some highly satisfying moments, and brought an enjoyable level of interactivity to the combat. I didn’t have enough time to really get an idea of how much these new systems would add to the overall loop in the long term, but they were exciting additions all the same, and I’m eager to see how much depth they’ll bring to the table in the full release.

Of course, having a shiny open world doesn’t amount to much unless you’re also able to populate it with interesting things to do in addition to combat or side quests, and Rebirth seems to be tackling this issue by including no shortage of minigames. In just the few hours I had, I played the piano, I tamed a chocobo, I rounded up stray moogles, and got far too stuck into Queen’s Blood, a brand new card game. That last one was the absolute star of the show for me, as its implementation is highly reminiscent of Final Fantasy VIII’s Triple Triad. It has its own unique ruleset, but playing it against NPCs and collecting their cards upon victory is a major portion of it, and it seems primed to satisfy the completionist in me in the same way Triple Triad did.

Rebirth’s beginning was also just as pretty to look at as you’d expect from a new mainline Final Fantasy release, but it seemed as though attaining the larger game world did require a few concessions here and there. Namely this came in the form of an occasional object or section of level geometry with a noticeably smaller resolution texture inconsistent with its surroundings. The performance-centric graphical option also needed to employ some pretty aggressive image scaling in order to maintain 60 frames per second with so many objects on the screen.

Ultimately these are pretty small gripes, and while they did stand out, I can see the decision working hugely in the game’s favor by trading some graphical fidelity for its scale. In Kalm alone there was so much to see and do with a surprising degree of NPC density as well. It’s simply a different order of magnitude compared to what we got with Remake.

In the brief presentation preceding my preview, Naoki Hamaguchi and Yoshinori Kitase emphasized that a major goal of Final Fantasy VII Rebirth was to recapture the excitement of traversing the world map of the original, and it was easy to feel that being the case with what I experienced through its scale and emphasis on exploration.

It’s an ambitious switch-up that’s trying to offer the player more freedom with progression and a wider variety of things to do without sacrificing the narrative focus and presentation of the previous game. It remains to be seen if Rebirth will be able to stick the landing over the course of the entire game with this attitude as its watchword, but it’s one that certainly makes a strong first impression, and it’s easy to look forward to getting my hands on the full game.

Final Fantasy VII Rebirth is scheduled to release for PlayStation 5 on February 29, 2024.

Screenshots taken by writer. Featured image courtesy of Square Enix.