After putting the controller down at the end of around four hours of a preview build of Final Fantasy VII Rebirth, one thought occupied my mind more than any other I had about the game: Four hours is not enough time to preview Final Fantasy VII Rebirth.
I was lucky enough to get hands-on with this middle entry in Square Enix’ ambitious Final Fantasy VII Remake Project late last year by way of two distinct slices of the game, but this was the first time I – or any other members of the media – had been able to simply boot up the game from a fresh save and play our way through. It was finally an opportunity to immerse ourselves in Rebirth’s true cadence and game feel, and especially to understand exactly how and where it picks up from the events of Remake to usher in a whole new and dynamic world.
As fans of the original game and/or Remake might have assumed, Final Fantasy VII Rebirth opens with Cloud and his friends in the town of Kalm, having just escaped Midgar as fugitives and taking the opportunity to get their bearings and debrief. Just like in the original, Cloud takes this opportunity to divulge the history he has with Sephiroth and in particular the events of a trip to his hometown of Nibelheim five years prior. Without spoiling anything for new players, this was a pivotal and memorable part of the original game and Square Enix has come swinging out of the gate with its fresh interpretation in Rebirth.
While far from surprising, it was immediately heartening to see that Kitase, Hamaguchi and team haven’t lost their touch in expanding these once-simple scenes into modern, cinematic encounters that genuinely elevate the source material. Nibelheim feels that much richer a place to explore with the new level of scope and fidelity, with crowds of NPCs reacting to seeing the freshly-SOLDIERed Cloud make a return trip home, so much more environmental substance to take in and massive amounts of new writing. Everything OG fans remember about this section is here and realised in stunning detail. I even attempted to play that iconic main theme in a certain someone’s room, but it turns out piano is not my forte. All of this adds up to make those pivotal moments hit exponentially harder, and again without saying too much the newly-directed versions of certain scenes pack a pretty big punch here.
The first chapter of the game also serves as a tutorial for exploration and combat, both for new players getting to grips with the basics and for returning Remake players to get a feel for the expanded traversal and new wrinkles to battles. I’ve actually covered a lot of this part in my earlier preview, so rather than spend time on that now you can read it here if you’re curious about Cloud’s trip up Mt. Nibel and how it plays in Rebirth, including what it’s like to control Sephiroth himself.
Once Cloud’s flashback sequence and this chapter wrapped up, it was time to explore the town of Kalm, and almost immediately I was blown away. This dense and rich rendition of Kalm is both visually spectacular and shockingly explorable – at least compared to anything we’d seen in Remake. If a lot of that game’s environments felt like set dressing with only the illusion of freedom, it’s clear the objective here was to change that entirely. Kalm is a pretty dense spot by Final Fantasy town standards and Cloud is free to wander its winding streets, climb over fences, even swim across its canals. Any concerns I might have had about the world in Rebirth not matching the scale and detail I’m sure most Final Fantasy VII fans would imagine when playing the original have very quickly been assuaged.
In Kalm, aside from the usual stores you’d expect to be able to visit, I also took a look into a local “bookstore” where I learned about Rebirth’s new Folios. Folios are, for all intents and purposes, your party members’ individual skill trees, but the overarching systems that drive them are really interesting. For starters, to unlock “cores” with new skills in your Folios you need to raise your party level, which you do by exploring the world, helping civilians with their problems and overall deepening your bonds with your party. You’ll frequently come across small moments with your party which can lead to unique conversations, choices to make or even larger narrative scenes, which makes them worth pursuing from a story and progression perspective.
Once you’ve opened up cores in your Folios and earned SP through levelling up (or other means) to spend on them, you’ll find they also contain a lot of the new “Synergy” abilities which are a crucial part of Rebirth’s expanded combat options. I didn’t spend as much time on combat in this preview as in my last one, just due to how much other exciting stuff was going on, but you can learn more about Synergy Skills and Abilities in my last preview.
As soon as I was done in Kalm and out in the open world itself, I was astonished. Having spent a small amount of time in the open area around Junon in my last preview I had some idea of the scale of this thing, but Hamaguchi-san and team have very much nailed that “leaving the Vault” feeling that impresses just how vast the world actually is. Where the Grasslands were once a flat, green texture on an overworld map they’re now verdant, flora-filled rolling hills and well-trod paths dotted by lonesome cottages, farms and crumbling ruins. Coming from last year’s Final Fantasy XVI and its open “zones” I don’t think I was anticipating quite the size or complexity of Rebirth’s seamless map. We’re back to something closer to Final Fantasy XV in terms of openness, only exponentially larger as much as I can tell and with far more to see and do.
Broadly, there are things that make this a far more “open world” video game experience than I’d imagined. A robust crafting system? It’s got that. Ubisoft towers? Yep, those are here. Following random birds to tucked-away climbing spots that lead you to discovery points and even more new map data? You bet it has that. I say all of this without a hint of derision though – this is genuinely a compelling way to experience Final Fantasy VII’s world anew and an encouraging sign of the series embracing more contemporary ideas that make engaging with the setting feel more interactive and player-driven.
The midpoint of this particular slice of the game, as original players will know, involves Cloud and team visiting Bill’s chocobo ranch to learn how to wrangle their first bird. This section has naturally been modernised quite a bit and no longer will you have to fuss with catching chocobos in random battles and then abandoning them on the field. After a singular and entertaining stealth-catching minigame, you’ll find yourself in possession of your very own chocobo and free to call it out in the open world whenever you want to get somewhere fast. There are also chocobo time trials and some other fun activities at the ranch, along with a shop where you can spend collectable Golden Plumes to buy fun stuff like new threads for your mount.
Also at the ranch is a face that’ll be familiar to Final Fantasy VII Remake fans – the child genius cyborg, Chadley. While Chadley once again acts as a gateway to obtaining powerful Summon materia, his place in Rebirth is hugely expanded. After being reunited outside of Bill’s ranch, Chadley hands the party the appropriately-named CHAD Module, which is how you’ll gather valuable intel, both from the field and from enemies, to score points that feed back into Rebirth’s progression loop. It’s a neat way to motivate players to go out and explore more of the open environment and really take in the abundance of detail and work poured into really fleshing everything out, and helps drive home the game’s core theme of strengthening friendships and connections with the world.
Another incredibly exciting new experience that I was treated to during my time with Rebirth is the newly-added deck building mini-game, Queen’s Blood. I already knew that I’d be obsessed with this based purely on my love for previous Final Fantasy card games like Triple Triad and Tetra Master, and Queen’s Blood is absolutely a worthy successor to those while also calling to mind some other iconic games like The Witcher 3’s Gwent. I wanted to talk about this in more depth than a single preview article could accommodate, so head here to learn more about Queen’s Blood.
The preview sessions ended on a pretty big high with the battle against the infamous Midgardsormr (which OG FF7 fans will probably know as the Midgar Zolom) in the marshlands going into the Mithril Mine. I don’t want to spoil how the team has adapted this scene to the new version, suffice it to say that it’s cool as hell and left me with so many questions. It’s pretty incredible though, the way that the team can turn what is essentially a 20-30 minute endeavor in the original, from leaving Kalm to fighting this beast, into a vast and expansive section of game with side quests, discoveries, mini-games, character development and all manner of things to the point that a few hours simply wasn’t enough to even scratch the surface.
As tough as it was to fit enough game into those four hours, it’s even harder to fit all of my gushing into one preview piece. That said, it would be criminal to close this out without mentioning just how astonishing Final Fantasy VII Rebirth is to witness. Naturally the move to developing it exclusively for the PS5 has helped the team take the already-gorgeous visuals of Final Fantasy VII Remake up a notch while also expanding the scope as much as it has. Spectacular character models, lighting and animations won’t be new to anyone who played the last game, especially the later PS5 update, but it’s the sheer volume of gorgeous views and subtle details here that really shine. It’s definitely a different beast, but this is absolutely going to be as much a showpiece for the PlayStation 5 as Final Fantasy XVI was last year.
After pretty much having the DualSense controller pried out of my hands at the end of our session, I’m filled with nothing but excitement for Final Fantasy VII Rebirth and unwavering confidence in this team to deliver something that’s true to the 27-year-old source material, but also fiercely modern, filled to the brim with new experiences and with an identity all its own. Bring on February 29.