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April 2024

Final Fantasy VII Rebirth

Platform(s): PlayStation 5
Genre: RPG/Action
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Square Enix
Release Date: Feb. 29, 2024


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PS5 Preview - 'Final Fantasy VII Rebirth'

by Redmond Carolipio on Feb. 6, 2024 @ 4:01 p.m. PST

Final Fantasy VII Rebirth continues the story of Final Fantasy VII Remake, taking Cloud and the party out of Midgar into the wider world.

The summer of 1998 holds a special place in my heart. That's when I, barely a few breaths into being 20 years old, sat down with Final Fantasy VII for the first time. Playing it would be my birthday present. I wanted to knock it out before the end of the summer. This was kind of a big deal for me back then, but it was actually a cataclysmic gaming shift in our household. 

The gaming dynamic between my brother and me worked as such: He was the "RPG" guy, and I was the third-person action/sports/pew-pew guy. I didn't understand the appeal of turn-based combat, RPG attributes, exploring dungeons, etc. On the surface, it looked boring and time consuming, so I avoided it — even rolling my eyes watching my brother pick away at FFVII. I just wanted to hit and shoot stuff, score touchdowns or whatever, and that was that. My brother would call me anti-RPG, and I'm ashamed to admit that was probably fair at the time.

Then, my brother (and his friends, and legions of other people) started talking about it. They couldn't really stop. It wasn't about plot points necessarily; it was about the impact of the experience. These days, it would sound like people talking about a peak TV show; "What'd you think when THIS happened, I can't believe this happened to so-and-so," or they'd say stuff like "Bahamut" or "Super Nova" or "Chocobos" and on and on. I was curious. I even remember telling — almost announcing — to my brother that I was going to give "Final Fantasy VII or whatever" an honest shot. 

I did ... and it turns out Final Fantasy VII or whatever is one of the great, touchstone gaming moments of my life. Apparently, I'm not alone. Like it was for many others, FFVII was the first time I felt connected to a world, its energy and its characters in a way for which I wasn't prepared — Wait, is this a date? Hold on, I really care about these people. Aerith, nooooooooo! I want a chocobo. So yeah, it got me.

I bring up all of this to provide context into the energy and memories I was carrying when we members of the gaming media dropped into Los Angeles a few weeks ago and got a few hours to actually sit down and play the upcoming Final Fantasy VII Rebirth, which is slated to drop at the end of this month. Rebirth is the second phase of a three-part reimagining of the Final Fantasy VII narrative, world and characters; the first phase was in the form of Final Fantasy VII Remake.

Our playing time featured two phases. The first was gameplay following a main story path, so we could get tutorials and get a feel for where each of the characters stand. The second part was meant for the freedom to explore and get a sense of the newer open-world feel, which drifts away from the more regimented, linear vibe of Remake.

Rebirth is a continuation of the events of Remake, which ended with supervillain/aspirational god figure Sephiroth handing an L to Cloud (the hero) following an epic confrontation; Sephiroth also spared Cloud's life, giving him the opportunity to regroup with his friends. Most of my playing time with Rebirth focused a lot on that regrouping, which takes place in the village of Kalm with Cloud recounting to Aerith, Barrett, Red XIII and Tifa the first time he ever got to work with Sephiroth.

Cloud's first mission with Sephiroth started in the village of Nibelheim, Cloud's hometown. As you may or may not know (which would be surprising), both used to be part of an elite fighting unit called SOLDIER, which serves Shinra, an omnipresent super-corporation that basically controls the world. Back then, Sephiroth was seen as the fighting unit's warrior rockstar: cool, honorable and unbeatable.

It's in Nibelheim where I, as the player, got a taste of exploration, talking to people, and getting a feel for what it's like to move around in this snippet of the game world. It was kind of a moment, actually; we've come a long way since the late 1990s. The more innocuous moments deal with Cloud explaining some of the things he did during his visit to the town while you're doing them as the player in real time, like visiting his mom, or just walking into Tifa's house in Nibelheim like a creeper— "You went into my room?" — and playing a piano ... badly.

Moving on, this first mission for Sephiroth and Cloud deals with the investigation of a facility that handles mako, which fans of the game already know as the tangible, essential "lifeforce" that powers the planet. This is where Cloud remembers re-meeting Tifa, whose father was the town leader. She volunteers as a guide to lead Cloud, Sephiroth, and a few other soldiers up the treacherous mountain path to the mako facility. This meant some time for battle.

If you've played Remake or even Final Fantasy XVI, there isn't much that's going to surprise you when it comes to combat. Sure, you can elect to play Rebirth in the classic style, but I wanted a chance to see how the active combat system flowed. Sure enough, it's as I remember — real-time action combat mixed in with a menu that I can pop up by pressing X, which freezes the action around me so I can use items, plan power attacks, or just take a beat and strategize. You can also switch between party members on the fly, offering a dimension to boss battles that didn't exist before. Getting to light up some creatures as Sephiroth — even for a moment — was as satisfying as I expected.

It's the story beats that left an impression on me, more than the combat. This Sephiroth flashback from Cloud's perspective turned out to be Cloud witnessing the moment when Sephiroth veered from the path of venerable warrior to the one that turns him into a supernatural, world-destroying buzzsaw. It has to do with discovering his origins as well as the source of some very personal, even familial, tragedies. It breaks him, and as a result, he ends up annihilating the village and smacking down Cloud and Tifa, to the point where Cloud isn't even sure who or what he actually saw at that time. It's a continued source of strain on Cloud and Tifa's relationship that carries over into their "present," as they hide out in the town of Kalm to figure out how to track down Sephiroth.

The Kalm segment of my playing time had a lot to do with more exploration — not just of my surroundings but within the systems and menus available. Again, I didn't notice too many changes that would throw off someone who'd played Remake before, but I did notice a gameplay mechanic called "party level," which is an indicator of the bond and strength you have with your party. It sort of reminded me of "team chemistry" on NBA 2K, where the higher it is, the more stuff Cloud and his friends will be able to do.

Other highlights of my stay in Kalm was the introduction to the Queen's Blood card game, which I honestly can't explain in terms of rules, but I can totally see people burning chunks of time on, not unlike Gwent in the Witcher series. Also, Cloud ended up getting pulled into a pseudo-date with Aerith to climb one of the tallest towers in the town, so the FFVII charm-filled but awkward semi-romantic vibes are still present and ready to explore. There's a sequence where the party has to escape Kalm, as the village gets raided by Shinra forces looking for them; this led to the discovery of a crafting element for the heroes in terms of a "transmuter," which takes gathered raw materials and makes them into useful items.

It's after this escape from Kalm where the game's map and world truly open up for you to explore, which I did to some degree. In my exploration, I inevitably ran into one of the most iconic things ever bestowed upon us by the Final Fantasy universe: chocobos. They're somehow even more adorable now.

One of the key missions involved my having to traverse over water, but in order to do that, I had to engage in some chocobo wrangling, even taking part in a chocobo race to help break them in and make them available to summon at will. Also, before I forget ... there is nothing quite like the sight of Red XIII — a badass quadruped, mind you — hopping on the back of and riding a chocobo alongside everyone else, as if he does it all the time. It blew my mind the first time I saw it, and it remains awesome.

The final part of my playthrough was a boss battle. After the new chocobo buddies helped Cloud and company mosey over some marshlands, they ended up encountering a massive serpent. If you're of a certain age or playing experience (meaning you've played OG FFVII), you might have a good idea of what this serpent actually is and where you've seen it before. You'll also probably remember that it wasn't alive, but instead vertically impaled on a sharp tree. Well, this battle is how it eventually got there, and that's all I'll say about that.

There's a part of me that still can't believe we're here and that I'm seeing FFVII like this. The whole game, along with Remake, walks the line between paying incredible respect to the original content from the '90s while emanating a feeling of discovery for people like me and people who are entering this world for the first time. From what I saw, the game feels like magic. I felt 20 years old again at various points, and I wish I could bottle up that feeling and share it with others. Perhaps that's what'll happen on Feb. 29, when Final Fantasy VII Rebirth launches.

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