After an opportunity to sit down with two demos of the upcoming Final Fantasy VII Rebirth just days ago, the vibes are reasonably positive for this writer who didn’t quite get the universal acclaim around the first part of the Final Fantasy VII rebuild trilogy, Remake. But if there is one thing I reliably am, it is curious, and I will persist in throwing myself against this monolith of the Japanese roleplaying genre until I can really appreciate what all the fuss is about.
Nervously anticipating this session, my mind already well aware of the overwhelming discourse that would likely erupt from the game, I reckoned with my praise and misgivings of Remake as somebody who never played more than an hour or two of the 1997 original. I have reasoned on two things I felt could be tested during this preview: whether the combat is actually decent and I was just particularly bad at it in Remake, and if they have opened up the sense of adventure this time around rather than confining Cloud and company to the scrapyards and scaffolding of Midgar.
The first of the two demos that we went hands-on with featured the cat-eyed Sephiroth acting as a confident authority figure to our protagonist Cloud, some five years before his villainous turn in the events of the core game. Despite a younger and bushier-tailed Cloud playing the naive second fiddle to his white-haired mentor, exploration outside of combat was still controlled by Cloud. However, as we journeyed through a mountainous cave system and entered combat with large insects, I could switch to Sephiroth and wield his ridiculously long blade to sweep through mobs at lightning speed with massive damage.
Seeing Red XIII mounted on a Chocobo cracks me up
Tagging along with the party but remaining on the periphery of battle is what appeared to be an adolescent Tifa. It turns out that before turning heads and throwing fists, her younger self was busy playing tour guide while sporting a funky cowgirl outfit. She didn’t have much to offer in this brief section, and I wouldn’t have even known it was the lady of fierce fists if the demo hadn’t explicitly pointed it out. Nevertheless, there is a sweetness to these characters’ interactions in this flashback sequence as they set off to investigate a malfunctioning Mako reactor.
Along the way, the party comments on stalagmite formations resulting from centuries of energy accumulating in these caves. This kicks off a neat cutscene that allows audiences a peek behind Sephiroth’s mask, to hear from his own mouth why he might later tread the path he does. Climate change and negotiating the limitations of the planet’s energy source appear to be causing him great internal conflict that is not yet appreciated by the accompanying characters. This nugget of character development resonated with me due to the performances and framing of the cinematic being both sincere and captivating. It also gave me confidence that while Remake has laid the groundwork for introducing the cast, Rebirth has the opportunity to develop them in a way that disrupts the forward-moving events of the previous entry in interesting ways.
Moving on through the caves gives way to a traversable cliffside, featuring dinky little climbing sections which made me smile. Taking a note from the open-world AAA playbook courtesy of games like Horizon: Zero Dawn, the cliff was complimented with plenty of handholds smeared in yellow paint. Ever the tough guy, Sephiroth climbs with one hand of course.
Play as that edgy dude from Advent Children!
After my rock-climbing escapades, this first demo culminated in a boss fight outside the Mako reactor with an aggravated, long-legged beast with mandibles for scooping up whichever party member was recklessly doing the most close-quarters damage. It would then do something rather neat, where it would crawl onto the ceiling, out of reach. This forced me to negotiate with the paused-time menus to find some ranged magic attacks to knock him back down. Because I just could not get over how swift and powerful Sephiroth felt, I controlled him for most of the fight, which meant having to look out for Cloud as he would constantly be captured by the giant creature. I would then need to hack away at its legs in order to free the poor fella. After a round or two of this, the game prompted me with a tutorial on the new synergy abilities — cinematic new team moves that give the player a brief respite from the fast-paced combat to enjoy some flashy effects and heavy damage numbers. It was a great way to take a moment to reset and reassess the fight, while also making a sizeable chip on the opponent’s health bar.
With the boss monster defeated I was keen to launch myself into the second demo which promised a greater emphasis on exploration. Indeed, it did deliver, with one small addition making all the difference to my sense of adventure. Players can now hold the circle button outside of combat to vault and clamber up and around terrain, which is the secret sauce I really needed to make the exploration feel a little less path-bound.
We picked up with Cloud, Aerith, Barret, and good boy Red XIII atop Chocobo mounts on the fields outside of the city of Junan. Because the previous demo had clued me into this new system of traversal, I dismounted the party no more than two minutes later. Partly because the fields looked to be densely packed with enough lootables and landmarks to make exploration on foot quite interesting. And then I run into a goddamn gorgeous Chocobo chick. Despite beckoning me with cute hops and chirps, the fair-faced, 3-foot-tall not-chicken would run away as I approached. Giving chase to the handsome chicklet as it guided me past several fast-travel checkpoints, I noticed it wiggling what appeared to be the shell of a nut covering its hide. In what may prove to be the biggest question I take away from this preview, I was left baffled by the lore implications about Chocobo reproduction if indeed this is a part of the young chick’s anatomy. Are they birthed in some kind of nut, while also being the product of daddy-Chocobo’s nut?
Losing sleep over the little fellas’ butt nut
In case that is a distressing thought, consider my surprise as the little dude led me towards a Chocobo stable after I gave it an enthused pat. Upon reaching the stable, I found a vendor that allows players to buy, equip, and customise several armour pieces for their Chocobo at what is aptly named the Chocoboutique.
With a compass atop the screen filled with several icons of interest to guide me as I travelled these wilds, I instead opted to follow my nose in this open area outside Junon. I was intent on testing the limits of the new terrain traversal options and found myself impressed that this opens up ripe options for skirting around undesirable encounters as well as making the discovery of hidden nooks all the more satisfying. Short of vertical walls without clearly designated handholds, I was impressed to find that Cloud would happily surmount just about anything in his path. While this example of Rebirth’s larger outdoor environments doesn’t necessarily feel like an open world per se, the densely packed and sprawling zone accomplishes just as much a sense of adventure when considering that every cardinal direction seems to offer further stories, characters, and rabbit holes to fall into. This is exactly the kind of curiosity-driven exploration I craved but ultimately didn’t find much of in 2020’s Remake.
Once I had satisfied myself with aimlessly wandering the wilderness, I naturally found myself exploring a nearby cave formation that led me to an entire fishing village that in turn led to the underside of the iron-scape city of Junan. This lively hub of activity was filled with detail and characters, as well as beautifully rendered huts and shops that I could seamlessly wander into while not having to faff about with doors, hidden loads, or pop-in as would often be the case in Remake. Surprising me, it turned out that the demo wished for me to eventually stumble upon this area and ended by squaring me off against another boss.
Everybody died moments later
Unlike the first boss, this was some kind of terrifying, levitating sea creature that made mincemeat of me and my party. After exhaustingly and constantly resurrecting squishy Aerith with phoenix downs after she would be engulfed in restrictive bubbles of water, it dawned on me that I just might not be very good at the combat in this game. Indeed, Final Fantasy VII Rebirth builds upon Remake’s unique blend of fast-paced dodging and blocking during combat while spells and abilities are activated via menus that pause combat. It was a system I never became adept at in 2020 and made more of a fool of me this time around. As such, I am officially declaring that I have found the Final Fantasy game that has made a muppet out of me. With this humbling realisation courtesy of these two exciting demos, I am determined to git gud and further glean the prospects for adventure that this expanded world has to offer when it launches on PS5 next year.
Final Fantasy VII Rebirth releases on PS5 on February 29, 2023.