Review: Final Fantasy VII: Rebirth

22 Feb 2024

So here we are, back to dealing with the Planet all over again.

Final Fantasy VII: Rebirth is a game that has a complicated history to deal with and a complicated set of fan desires to assuage. It’s not a stretch to say that the first game in the remake series was well-received, but it’s also not a stretch to say that some people were really upset by how the game ended by more or less planting a flag saying “this might not go the way you’re expecting.” Which means that the sequel was always going to be stepping in it right from the start, simply because the game has to simultaneously provide new things to surprise the player and make fans wonder what’s going to be different while also keeping fans happy and also, yeah, being a good game along the way, that’d be nice.

Now I’ve sat down with it, played through the game, and had some time to think about the game. Is it worth the price of entry on your PlayStation 5? And perhaps more importantly, does that scene still play out the same way? Here’s what I think.

Everything Has Changed, Absolutely Nothing’s Changed

First and foremost, I appreciate that the game gives you an optional movie with Red XIII narrating the broad strokes of everything that happened in the last game in a quick but efficient way. If you’ve forgotten something? Hey, this will remind you, no muss, no fuss. Good work.

I also appreciate that then when you start the game proper, you will immediately be asking “what the hell?”

As reviewers, we were asked not to spoil the events of the game… and for good reason. You may think that you know everything there is to know about the game’s story, being as the game is based on a PlayStation title from decades ago, but part of the point of the last game’s ending was to make sure that the game could surprise you and do new things. And right within the first few moments, it’s clear that you have no idea what is happening, with characters cropping up who shouldn’t be here at times when they shouldn’t be around… or should they? What is even happening?

The game soon thereafter grounds itself in familiarity, however, bringing you back to the recreation of the incident in Nibelheim. Much like its predecessor, it’s clear that the game’s storytelling revels in giving you big and emotional moments from Final Fantasy VII blown out to be even bigger and in even higher detail. It doesn’t even confine these moments to things that necessarily had to happen in the main story, either. But you can also tell that the game is willing to drill down on differences between the original and the remake, adding new scenes and expanding along the way.

It also takes advantage of the fact that Cloud, Barrett, Tifa, Aerith, and even Red XIII are not the same people they were in the original. Final Fantasy VII Remake already established that these were subtly different characters, and rather than trying to force the characters back into who they were at this point of the game (when the cast barely knew one another), this game lets them be richer and more developed in their interplay. That does have downsides in terms of mechanics, but in terms of character interplay it’s fun to see everyone playing off one another for better and for worse.

Just as importantly, the whole mystery of “how will things change” is kind of hanging in the background rather than being personified from the start. The game lets you sort of contemplate and wonder as some things are familiar, some things feel like expanded moments the original breezed past, and other things feel new. It even feels amusingly off-putting to me. How well do you remember every moment of the original? Is this new? Was this hinted at back in the original game? That’s some good storytelling.

If you really disliked anything from the first game that hinted this game might not play out the way you’re expecting, then you are not going to be thrilled by this game. Me, I was loving it, and the only real problem is how the pacing sometimes felt slow and disjointed… but that’s a discussion more for the gameplay than here. So let’s move on.

Let Us Cling Together

If you were hoping to bring in your uber-party from the original game, sorry to disappoint you, but this is not that game. Indeed, I think the weakest part of this game is the ways in which it changes from the original game… and in many places, not for the better. In other places, for the better and the worse.

Let’s start with battles. While I liked the original remake’s battle engine, it somehow felt like it was an awkward marriage of the real-time elements and the turn-based elements. There were really good ideas there that didn’t always coalesce, a lot of the unique mechanics didn’t totally work, and it didn’t always feel like dodging/guarding worked the way you would have expected. I was ready for the sequel to address all of that. Instead, it addressed… kind of none of it and instead added a bunch of other systems on top and around it.

At its core, it’s familiar. Press Square to attack and Triangle for each character’s unique mechanic. As you attack and perform actions, you gain ATB sections, once one is filled you can use an ability or cast a spell. Fair enough. However, there’s a greater emphasis on guarding because that’s how you use synergy abilities, which in turn allow you to use special synergy attacks with your party and also build up your companion’s ATB gauges.

Not only does this feel kind of awkward and complicated, it’s not helped by the fact that these abilities are unlocked slowly over time, and it’s possible at certain points to have no offensive synergy options with your party. Which means that it’s possible to feel like you’re kind of out of options… and since those abilities are important, sort of like mini-limit breaks, it’s a major problem! The fact that a party of Cloud, Tifa, and Aerith out of the gate will probably have no offensive ways to gain synergy is kind of not super!

This is compounded by the fact that the ability system from the last game has been completely replaced and overhauled with folios, which work in a similar fashion but are far more focused on synergy between party members and are only unlocked as you raise your party level. You do still have weapon upgrading, but that’s a whole other system that mostly just involves picking a couple of weapon bonuses. It all feels awkward, more stuff tacked on to have more stuff tacked on.

But there’s also the matter of gameplay flow to consider, and here’s where stuff gets both way better and way worse.

The first remake was very much a straightforward game of dungeon-then-town along a linear sequence. You were dealing with tight, constrained maps all the way through. This was appropriate as it was a massive expansion to a portion of the game that was originally both kind of short and also just not very open, but things were going to have to change for the sequel. And the developers changed it by putting you in a region that is… well… there’s no two ways to put this, it feels like Final Fantasy VII Rebirth has been cribbing notes from Assassin’s Creed. Every map is littered with points of interest to unlock, fast travel points, chocobo challenges, sidequests, and the like.

And it is, in fact, great fun.

I really enjoyed going around, unlocking towers, finding the special combat challenges, the summon waystations, and the like. This is the sort of gameplay that I really enjoy. It’s stuff where you can absolutely zone out for a long while and forget about everything beyond exploring and unlocking. Super cool stuff. But the problem is that while you are doing this, the progression of the main plot grinds to a dead halt, and by the time you finally get back to it things feel like they clunk back after a whole lot of not much happening.

This is why I say it’s better and worse. Seeing how the game lets you roam around and explore the open world, which has been stuffed with things to do that are different enough to be engaging? That’s fun! But it also means that you feel the urge to go do all of that before moving on, which has the feeling of “okay, important plot will have to wait, it’s time for Cloud to go follow owls for a couple hours.” It succeeds in making the game feel more open, but it also means that when you do wind up in dungeons that are much more contained and reminiscent of the first game, you aren’t ready for it.

Add in a whole crafting system, a new card game, plenty of minigames… there’s a lot on display in this game. I definitely feel like it’s richer and a better game than its predecessor, even if combat feels like a sidegrade instead of a straight improvement. On a whole, I definitely like it. But it also feels just a tiny bit overstuffed, like it’s one minigame shy of total overload.

The World is Beautiful if You Let It Be

If you’ve somehow missed every promotion about this game, you probably still knew that this game was going to be gorgeous. Surprise! It’s absolutely gorgeous, the characters look amazing, cutscenes are beautiful, the world is ridiculously detailed, and I both love and hate that the game keeps in the weird physics wherein your characters bump into loose chairs and send them cartwheeling across the landscape like tiddlywinks. It’s so weird and it doesn’t make any diegetic sense but I’d feel weird if it were gone now.

The music includes both original pieces and new arrangements and variants on familiar leitmotifs from the original game, all of which sounds excellent and is immediately memorable. Voice acting is also perfectly on par, which is especially important considering that this game really needs a Sephiroth who is simultaneously a likable guy in the past and an utter monster in the present. You need to believe both, and it works here.

Whatever faults I can point to, none of them come down to presentation. This game is just a beautiful experience all the way through, and any time I felt like grousing a little bit about mechanical elements I’d hit something else that looked painfully beautiful. Praiseworthy indeed.

Stuck in the Middle

Final Fantasy VII Rebirth was going to have a hard job no matter what. It has to be a solid standalone game while also making it completely clear what the trilogy’s ultimate theme and goal is going to be. It has to cover the middle of the game, including some of the most iconic moments of the story, while also dealing with the fact that things are going to change and the most iconic scene of the whole game is something that happens at the end of the first disc.

What we get out of this is, then… kind of a game of endless middles. It’s a game in which you explore a lot of wide open spaces, run around, enjoy the atmosphere and the world after a predecessor that kept you on tight rails. Part of me wonders if I’m being too gentle on the game, if it just has so many diversions and side activities that it feels more substantial than it actually is. But… well, then I dive back into the story and I’m reminded about how well this game makes you feel, even from the start, that you have a group of characters you like and you know that tragedy is an oncoming freight train.

Maybe it’d be nice to say that we all should have gotten over Final Fantasy VII by now instead of fawning over the world and its characters. But far from being the simple note-for-note reprise of the original that it could have been, Final Fantasy VII Rebirth swings for the fences to be a big and original thing that feels like a full game even while it is, functionally, the middle. It has weaknesses like combat I’m not wholly sold on and maybe a bit too much start-and-stop through gameplay, but if you’ve been looking forward to the game, you will not be disappointed. And if you want to experience the full story, this is a really good time.

~ Final Score: 8/10 ~

Review copy provided by Square-Enix for PS5. All screenshots courtesy of Square-Enix.