Final Fantasy VII: Rebirth First Hands-on: A very worthy sequel to Remake
We've been hands-on with the anticipated upcoming title and are very impressed with how Square Enix is looking to iterate on the platform Remake was built on.
Square Enix is on one hell of a hot streak as of late when talking about Final Fantasy. Final Fantasy XIV is still getting new content and drawing in players, Final Fantasy XV sold like hot cakes at launch, as did Final Fantasy XVI when it debuted a few months ago, and on top of all of this, the premium, high-production and massive remake of Final Fantasy VII has become one of the most talked about titles of the past decade. While Final Fantasy VII: Remake is now behind us, all eyes are firmly fixed on Final Fantasy VII: Rebirth, which is coming in February, but this hasn't stopped us from being able to play through a couple of different demos of the game, all as part of a hands-on preview session, and let me say that if you had any doubt, this game is shaping up to be a corker. But let me explain why.
All the systems that Square Enix unveiled and brought to the table in the Remake are still here. The developer hasn't looked to shake things up again, the combat is still an action-RPG hack n' slash type with abilities that can be cast by essentially freezing the real-time action. Adding to this is a story that is crammed with emotion and thrill, and features characters and environments that look to wow you with their impressive visuals and then engage you with the exciting narrative at the game's core. The difference with Rebirth however is that this game improves in places where the first game lacked. The world is more detailed, there are more options with how you explore and go about the story, the combat has even more depth, and this is all on top of the game still feeling personal and intuitive. As you would probably expect for a sequel, Rebirth is the evolution of Remake.
Since the preview session was split between two demo levels that looked to explore two completely different narrative beats, I won't delve into the story in too much detail here. I'll simply say that the dialogue and the storyline is perhaps the most important element of this game, as no matter where you go, you will come across cutscenes and narrative moments that look to explore the lore and backstory of the faces that we have come to love from Remake and Remake Intergrade (yes, Yuffie takes on a much more significant role in Rebirth). Square Enix is also a true master of focusing predominantly on narrative as well, as regardless of whether you're watching a cutscene that feels like it has been ripped straight out of an animated movie or listening to Cloud and the gang riff off one another, the dialogue and story is consistently interesting. But again, this is similar to the way Remake looked to approach its story, and frankly Square hasn't looked to iterate on this method too much.
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As for the combat, this is where things start to feel like Remake 2.0. You can still hack n' slash, use abilities and spells, assess enemies for weaknesses, build up pressure to stagger an enemy for big damage, evade out of the way of danger, switch between characters for unique regular attacks, and then use the pop-up menu to tell allies to heal and work together. But now, Square Enix has introduced a few new interesting mechanics and systems that look to take things a step further.
Each character now has access to a smaller ability called a Unique Move, which is a special move that can be used without needing to spend MP. It's not a flashy ability or a high damage one, but it does add an extra level of depth. For Aerith for example, this ability was called Nova Warp and allowed Aerith to simply blink out of the way of danger, great for avoiding deadly attacks from foes. On top of this, the Synergy attack looks to further capitalise on the structure of your roster. Depending on which two allies you decide to include in your starting team - a selection that can be easily swapped out or arranged into multiple rosters that can be quick-selected between with an additional pop-up menu section - you can have two characters team up for an almost Limit-level attack with extra benefits. Cloud and Tifa could land a quick and high-damage attack that would extend the amount of time an enemy remained staggered, whereas Cloud and Aerith can collaborate for an attack that will see the pair having access to unlimited MP for a short duration. Needless to say, attacks of this calibre require quite a steep investment and can't be used frequently, hence why I refer to them as similar to Limit attacks.
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The RPG and customisation suite seems to be slightly more intuitive too, with less cluttered menus and easier to access areas, which no doubt is ideal for anyone, like me, who loathes complex menu structures.
As for what I actually got to play during the preview session, the first demo was called The Fated Mt. Nibel and this mission was a flashback sequence when we get to play as a young Cloud as he and Sephiroth look to find a protected Mako reactor. This demo proved that Square has decided that there is still a benefit to having more linear sequences, as during this demo I followed a straightforward level, climbed up rock faces, shimmied over ledges, and then fought all manner of dangerous monsters as both Cloud and Sephiroth. Yes, you read that right. During some parts of the game, you get to take control of the famed villain and as you would expect he feels incredibly dangerous and powerful, with violent sword slashes, hard-hitting abilities, and a broad array of spell options to choose from. This mission felt very similar to what Square looked to offer in Remake, with little exploration and ways to venture off the beaten path but still a few opportunities to pick up Materia orbs and crates to smash in the hopes to find potions and similar objects.
The second demo was a completely different situation. Known as The Open Wilds of Junon, this is where you can see the biggest changes in how Rebirth differs from Remake because this demo featured an open area to explore. It reminded me of Final Fantasy XVI and how the world isn't open but is instead split into smaller semi-open portions, all where you can explore as you see fit, ride Chocobos, complete side quests, and loot materials and items to transmute them into gear. The area I got to check out wasn't massive and wasn't littered with objectives to complete, but you could follow Chocobo chicks to Chocobo stations to fix them up (and then critically be able to pet the Chocobo chick), or even take on activities such as additional combat encounters where you are tasked with added objectives (for example, to beat the encounter in a certain time limit) to boot. These areas don't come across as massive and from what I've seen don't have the encounters and moments that really separate good open levels from great ones. You won't be wowed by random occurrences and will pretty much just go about your business by visiting points of interest on your map, but it does add depth to the exploration, which did begin to feel very repetitive in Remake.
If you were wondering about how the game performs, Square insisted that we only play in the Graphics mode for this preview session and, while a lower frame rate was noticeable, the gameplay felt tight, responsive, and fluid. The visuals on the other hand were exceptional. Remake is a truly gorgeous game, especially on PS5, and as Rebirth is built to suit the current-gen PlayStation solely, you can expect an even more detailed and immersive product where the characters feel even more lively, and the world is so striking that it's hard to notice a difference between cutscenes and gameplay. The Performance mode will no doubt alter that a tad, but the one thing to note is that Rebirth is not holding back on its visuals or presentation.
Final Fantasy VII: Rebirth is exactly what I was hoping it would be: an improved and more impressive step-up from Remake. It's stunning, has extra depth in the combat and exploration, and yet still manages to hit all the important beats in a narrative and storytelling sense. Square Enix intends to release the game on February 29, 2024, and while there is a lot of this game still to experience and check out before making any rash opinions, my time with Rebirth has firmly cemented this game as one of, if not my most anticipated upcoming title.