Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth – the remake continues (Picture: Square Enix
The second instalment of the reimagined Final Fantasy 7 adds clever new systems, open world areas, and unbelievable graphics: let the hype begin.
For years, decades even, the idea of a remake of PlayStation classic Final Fantasy 7 was just a fan dream, one that most had no real expectation of becoming real. When it was actaully announced at E3 2015, alongside Shenmue 3 and The Last Guardian, it was such a momentous event many consider it to be the exact point at which the PlayStation 4 ‘won’ its generation. And then the game came out and, even more surprisingly, it was worth the hype.
However, Remake was perhaps something of a misnomer, as it was only the first of three games needed to tell the original story. Four years later, the second instalment of that reimagining, Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth, is poised to arrive; in light of the bang-up job Square Enix did with Remake it automatically becomes one of this year’s most anticipated releases.
In the build-up to its release, we managed to get an extensive hands-on taste of Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth, encompassing its first chapter – effectively an extended and story-rich tutorial – and a part of its second chapter. Even without progressing to the later stages of the game, we found more than enough evidence to suggest that, like Remake, it should once again raise the bar for the whole concept of taking old games and reworking them into something new and exciting.
Unsurprisingly, Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth starts just after the end of Remake, with Cloud and his gang (Tifa, Aerith, Barret, and Red XIII) travelling to the city of Kalm after fleeing Midgar. The ever-terse Cloud is finally cajoled into revealing his relationship with Sephiroth, in the time before he pitched up in Midgar, which turns out to be a device to trigger a flashback taking up the rest of the first chapter and which also functions as a tutorial.
Final Fantasy devotees will instantly find this flashback familiar, as its events were covered in 2022’s Crisis Core: Final Fantasy 7 Reunion – itself a remake of a 2007 game for the PSP. If that’s a bit meta for you, bear in mind that Reunion was released to mark the 25th anniversary of the original Final Fantasy 7 and was (admittedly quietly) positioned as a missing piece of lore, slotting between the first two remake instalments.
The flashback in the first chapter of Rebirth only covers the part of Crisis Core that takes place in Nibelheim, from whence Cloud, Sephiroth, and Tifa hail, and is tackled from Cloud’s perspective, airbrushing out the presence of Zack and others. It sees Cloud and Sephiroth pitching up in Nibelheim before trekking up to their fateful visit to the Mako reactor there, with a young Tifa in tow as their guide.
In Rebirth, that journey differs slightly from the one they undertook in Crisis Core, partly, one suspects, to maximise the opportunities to refamiliarise yourself with the game’s control system. Although, the first thing you notice is that there’s a new level of graphical fidelity on show. Unlike Remake, Rebirth is next gen-only and the detail in the environmental design is hugely impressive.
While the control system feels reassuringly familiar (and you can revert to the classic controls, should you so choose) Rebirth has plenty of subtle tweaks, along with some major new additions, that keep things fresher than you might have anticipated.
The most instantly noticeable change occurs the first time you enter combat: in Rebirth, when approaching random enemies, you’re given a new targeting reticule which flashes red to indicate that, if you press the attack button, you’ll be able to land the first strike. It’s a fairly typical thing to find in an action-role-playing game, but it’s always nice to go into combat feeling as though you’ve got the upper hand from the start.
In Rebirth the targeting system feels as though it has been tightened up since the last game, with an extra level of precision. In Remake, against lowly enemies at least, you could more or less leave the targeting system to do its thing and pretty much spam the attack button. But in Rebirth, it pays to be a bit more precise, manually switching between enemies according to where they are in relation to you.
Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth – existing fans know where all this is going (Picture: Square Enix
It feels as though you have to work a bit harder to time your attacks, dodges, and parries in Rebirth which, in our opinion, is a good thing. But, as you progress through Rebirth’s first chapter, you soon discover that you also have new elements you can deploy in combat.
In their flashback, as they make their way to Nibelheim’s Mako reactor, Cloud and Sephiroth soon encounter a mini-boss. By this point you’re given a taste of playing as Sephiroth and the mini-boss’s main purpose is to introduce a major new combat mechanism in Rebirth, called Synergy.
After being informed that this was enabled by collecting folios (of which more later), we found that when charged, it enabled powerful joint-attacks involving both Sephiroth and Cloud, not dissimilar to, but separate from, Limit Breaks. Cloud and Sephiroth’s Synergy attack is called Double Helix and, as well as looking impressive, it dealt a handy amount of damage. Synergy also allows Sephiroth to charge up an attack by holding down the parry bumper for a while.
Making our way through Nibelheim’s Mako reactor to a climactic cut scene, that again revisited the events of Crisis Core but this time from Cloud’s perspective, we encountered a number of other minor but welcome innovations. These include the ability to climb up designated walls and cliffs (with yellow-marked handholds), as in countless action games; some new or at least obscure types of Materia (including Empowerment and Magnify); Mixed Hi-Potions which restored Magic Points as well as health; and some puzzle-like mini-games, such as sucking up Mako gas in contaminated areas using giant vacuum-cleaners.
Proceedings really found their stride when Chapter Two began. At this point Cloud finishes reminiscing about his past with Sephiroth and the gang regroup in a large, well-appointed inn in the town of Kalm, having completed their escape from Midgar.
At last, they can relax, but not for long. Again, Rebirth wastes no time in exposing new aspects which weren’t present in Remake. The first of these is a card game called Queen’s Blood. This is clearly intended to be Final Fantasy 7’s answer to The Witcher 3’s Gwent and in that context it’s impressively convincing.
It’s simpler than Gwent and is played by two people on a board with three lanes, which each player attempts to dominate by playing cards that contain a number of pawns; each card adds an extra pawn to surrounding cards, according to its unique pattern. The objective is to have a higher pawn count than your rival in each lane and, more importantly, overall when all cards have been played.
Queen’s Blood is easy to grasp, surprisingly tactical and extremely addictive – and has a good chance of garnering the sort of cult following that Gwent still enjoys today. But eager to discover more of Rebirth proper we tore ourselves away and set about exploring Kalm.
Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth – a Kalm moment (Picture: Square Enix
Meeting Broden, the innkeeper, for the first time, he suggested we visit two locations: the arms dealer and the bookstore Maghnata Books. After a brief cut scene with Red XIII, we headed to the latter, where we could properly acquaint ourselves with the folio system. First, though, that brief encounter with Red XIII brought into action a new mechanism called Party Level; a tutorial screen explained that overcoming challenges, fulfilling side missions, and exploration would strengthen party bonds, increasing the Party Level and add new skills and abilities to our folios.
At Maghnata Books, we could delve deeply into those folios, spending Skill Points to open both Synergy abilities we could trigger with specific party members and new skills and abilities which would apply with any party members. For example, we unlocked a Synergy ability in which Barrett and Red XIII combine in an attack where the former propels the latter at enemies, and another in which Cloud is enabled by Tifa to launch a ranged, magic style attack. But there were also more general buffs and abilities to be had, which were more reminiscent of the weapon upgrade tree from Remake.
Visiting the arms dealer confirmed that the weapon upgrade tree hasn’t been removed from Rebirth, although it has been redesigned in a linear, simplified, manner – eliminating the concentric hubs that featured in Remake. The interplay between weapons upgrading and the folio upgrade system is designed both to add extra flexibility and to encourage you to swap between different parties of combatants.
The Party Level system reinforces that impression; if you’re one of those players who more or less kept the same battle party throughout Remake you’ll most likely have to rethink your approach in Rebirth, if you want to prosper.
Having tinkered with our party’s weapons and folio abilities, we resumed Rebirth’s storyline by catching up with Aerith for what she presented as a date: a spot of sightseeing at the top of Kalm’s premier tourist attraction, its clock tower. Sadly, that was pretty much the extent of any Kalm exploration that we were able to undergo, as a squadron of Shinra stormtroopers helicoptered into town, causing much consternation among the locals.
Shimmying down a handy pole, from the top of the clock tower, and preparing for a fighter, Cloud and Aerith were intercepted by Broden, clearly an Avalanche sympathiser, who informed us that we had to get back to the inn where the rest of the party were laying low. He ran interference while Cloud and Aerith stealthed their way back to the inn.
There, Broden introduced us to another system which is new for Rebirth: he gave us a transmuter, which provides the ability to turn raw materials collected in the open world into useful potions and objects.
In the inn’s basement, Cloud and Aerith hook up with Tifa, Barrett, and Red XIII and make their escape through underground passages, eventually emerging into Rebirth’s impressively bucolic and beautifully depicted open world. Their emergence into a stunning-looking hill environment, accompanied by plenty of cinematic tricks and collective gasps from Cloud’s party members, was something of an epic moment.
Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth – the open world is impressively pretty (Picture: Square Enix
This seemed entirely appropriate, given that, for the first time in the narrative arc of Final Fantasy 7, it gave the protagonists a large and inviting open world area to explore. Our initial mission was simple enough: to get to a farm owned by a friend of Broden, where we would find people sympathetic to Avalanche’s cause (and maybe begin enacting some revenge on Shinra and foiling Sephiroth’s deluded plans).
Initially, we pottered around, harvesting resources to transmute into useful items and taking on low-level enemies. But more taxing tasks would soon crop up. Finding ourselves in a true open world area felt like it opened up a whole world of possibilities, way beyond any encountered in Remake.
How Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth develops beyond the initial stages that we previewed, and how its new systems, storyline, and open world gel together will be something to explore when we get to play the full game. But those systems certainly seemed to be cleverly conceived to provide more flexibility in character development, as well as the chance to assemble different combat groups with varying specialist skills, tailored towards taking on different types of enemies.
Graphically, Rebirth definitely feels like a technological advance over Remake, and its production values clearly haven’t taken a step backwards either. As the middle part of the remake trilogy this has every chance of being an even better game than the first, whether you’ve played the original Final Fantasy 7 or not.
Formats: PlayStation 5
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Square Enix Creative Business Unit I
Release Date: 29th February 2024
Age Rating: 16
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