Few images are seared into my memory banks from my childhood as vividly as Sephiroth wreathed in flame. This iconic image from 1997’s Final Fantasy VII forever changed how I would look at video games, even as a ten year old.
I was awestruck for a multitude of reasons, mostly because the narrative twist was too much for my mind to fathom as a kid. But also technically, it was one of the best-looking scenes I’d ever seen in a game.
Fast forward to last month during an event in Los Angeles, that same scene played out in exquisite detail as I played the first four hours of Final Fantasy VII Rebirth. The follow-up to 2020’s Final Fantasy VII: Remake, Rebirth picks up the tale of Cloud, Barret, Tifa and the AVALANCHE crew as they escaped from Midgar, the open world at their feet before them.
As part of a flashback sequence to Cloud and Tifa’s hometown of Nibelheim, the spiky-haired protagonist recalls the events that consumed Sephiroth, setting everyone on the path that led them down destiny’s road to the events in Rebirth.
This isn’t the first time I’ve stepped foot on the slopes of Mt. Nibel in Final Fantasy VII: Rebirth, as late last year we were afforded an opportunity to check out a Tokyo Game Show build in an hour-long demo. Yet this time, during an event in Los Angeles last month, we were given the reins of a full four-hour build of the upcoming RPG, taking us through the Mt. Nibel flashback sequence, as well as exploring the open world outside of Kalm, the first settlement you visit after escaping Midgar.
The Mt. Nibel flashback is a pivotal moment in the original Final Fantasy VII game, and here it serves as an introduction to Rebirth in a spectacular way. Unless you’d played the original title, Sephiroth’s motivations and why he and Cloud are linked are mired in mystery - Rebirth sets the stage and the stakes early on.
Stepping into Nibelheim for the first time in Final Fantasy VII: Rebirth, it was amazing seeing this village I’d only ever enjoyed a top-down view of fully realized. I felt transported, my literal eyes seeing only what my mind’s eye imagined back when I was ten years old. This wouldn’t be the first time Final Fantasy VII Rebirth would wow me in this way that day, as the beautiful town of Kalm is also lovingly detailed in all its 3D glory.
Walking through the streets of Nibelheim, climbing the water tower where Tifa and Cloud made their fateful promise to each other, and visiting the childhood home of Cloud brought back a wealth of memories, and I’m not sure a smile left my face the whole time (which was made even wider each time Barret’s voice actor, John Eric Bently, would come over and give some excited encouragement to keep playing, fully in-character).
Climbing the slopes of Mt. Nibel in Rebirth for the second time felt even better than the first, as performance issues and more were smoothed out from September’s build. The craggy and grey slopes, dotted with plumes of escaping Mako vapors evoke an almost alien landscape at times, while the caves I explored were dark and foreboding until the brilliance of the latent natural material crystals glittered in what little light was there.
The Mt. Nibel sequence is an emotional rollercoaster as well, even knowing the story as well as I do. Square Enix has done a masterful job of recreating the landmark scene, etching the emotional struggle of all its characters on their highly detailed faces. I could see Tifa’s pain, and even at times, I felt sorry for Sephiroth as he came to grips with his origins.
A Kalming Presence
After the Mt. Nibel flashback ends, Cloud and friends find themselves in the town of Kalm, eager to rest up and improve their kit before venturing forth in search of Sephiroth. The cobblestone streets and timber-framed buildings rise beautifully as I stepped out of the inn with the party, the iconic water fountain centered in the town square.
The village bustled with life, with people going about their day, taking in the sights and sounds Kalm had on offer. I adored walking up and down its carefully manicured streets, seeing people converse at cafes, play games of Final Fantasy VII: Rebirth’s new card game, Queen’s Blood, and even watching musicians busking near the clocktower.
It’s here where players will be confronted with one of the new systems in Rebirth, which involves building relationships with your party. While some quests and cutscenes had selectable dialogue in the previous installment, Final Fantasy VII Rebirth takes this to the next level by adding what are effectively social links into the RPG. Some dialogue trees will present Cloud with multiple ways to respond, and how you choose to interact with a team member may grow your bond, or even diminish your relationship.
While this is partly a system that lets you do a little bit of roleplaying, especially considering you can go on dates with characters at some point down the road, it also has an impact on gameplay, as deeper bonds with characters can make them more effective in combat together.
One aspect of Final Fantasy VII: Rebirth that has been made clear from the devs and through trailers is, like the original, this installment will have many, many mini-games. While we got Fort Condor in the Intermission episode from Final Fantasy VII Remake Intergrade, Queen's Blood is a new card game that you can play throughout the world.
Queen's Blood is rather simple, yet surprisingly complex as you get into it. A card game, each player will start with five cards in a hand, each with their own power, summoning requirements and field of influence. The board is segmented into three lanes where you and your opponent will play cards in alternating turns until both players pass. You can't simply place your cards anywhere though, as you'll need to effectively claim territory by placing a card down where you already have an emerald pawn in place. You add more pins to a square based on the influence your cards exert on the space, so if you have a card whose influence extends to a square you already have a pawn in place, it'll add one. Some cards require at least two pins to place, while others require three.
Your opponent can flip territory to their influence, though, so it's a constant struggle over being able to exert your influence and build up your army to be more powerful than your opponent's in each lane. Some cards will boost an allied square's power, while others can diminish the power of whatever card is in an affected square - so learning how to best deploy your cards, and when, is crucial to winning battles.
You win by outscoring your opponent. This feels very much like Gwent, the card game from The Witcher 3, from both its board to its scoring system. As someone who spent a ton of time playing Gwent in The Witcher, and plays Magic the Gathering on the regular, I can't wait to dive more into Queen's Blood when I have more time with a build. The matches I played were a ton of fun, and Kalm has a few players you can challenge, as well as booster packs you can buy from the merchant to expand your collection, though I didn't spend a ton of time in there given our time constraints.
Kalm, however, is just one stop along the journey, and upon leaving the small village in search of Sephiroth’s whereabouts, the open grasslands opens up in front of the party, begging to be explored.
This is the biggest difference between Remake and Rebirth: its massive open world. While Remake takes place within the metal confines of Midgar, with its fairly linear streets and pathways, limiting where you could explore outside the beaten path, Rebirth opens vast plains in front of you and says, “Go have fun.”
To Catch A Chocobo
However, with an open world come some standard trappings to keep players occupied. One of the most prominent are the Remnawave Towers our loveable cyborg friend Chadley asks Cloud and team to reactivate.
These towers serve as fast travel spots around the world but also uncover activities and points of interest to explore further, from cute Moogle’s causing mischief to combat assignments to down packs of enemies in a time limit to earn rewards. The one thing the tower’s don’t do is reveal more landscape - you’ll need to do that on your own.
Thankfully, Final Fantasy VII: Rebirth lets you accomplish this rather easily by following the narrative footsteps of its predecessor. With progression stymied by a swamp leading into the Mithril Cave, Cloud and company need to find themselves a feathered friend, a Chocobo, to help traverse the bog.
Bill’s Chocobo Ranch, which features prominently in the original title as a place to start your chocobo-catching and breeding journey, is beautifully rendered here as well. Bill himself is the older gentleman who gives the party a lift to Kalm in the closing cutscenes of Final Fantasy VII: Remake, and his ranch is bustling with life. Chocobos everywhere Bill, Choco Billy, and his sister Chloe come alive on screen like they never have before.
As an aside, I can totally see my daughter cosplaying Chloe at some point in the future once she sees the character model.
Much like the OG Final Fantasy VII, you’re tasked with catching your own Chocobo, though Choco Billy offers a tamed one that just went missing rather than a fully wild Chocobo to tame. Things are different here than in the original, also. You’re not thrust into a random battle with a Chocobo using the Chocobo Lure materia, instead the entire endeavor takes place on the overworld.
Sneaking around in tall grass after tracking Piko, our runaway Chocobo, a capture mini-game of sorts kicks off, that sees Cloud needing to sneak up and catch his quarry unawares. However, Piko is guarded by some wild Chocobos, who will alert him if anyone gets caught. What plays out is a simple sneaking minigame that saw me inch towards Piko while the wild Chocobos had their backs turn. Cloud can also roll to cover ground quickly, especially if he’s caught briefly in a Chocobo’s line of sight.
While it’s fun, the minigame isn’t much to call home about - especially since being seen by a Chocobo doesn’t prompt them to move around and investigate further it seems. Because Piko is already tamed as well, actually capturing him is simply a matter of pressing Triangle to hop on his back and Cloud automatically feeds him the greens provided by the Chocobo Ranch for this purpose. I do appreciate that this all takes place in the open world where it all feels pretty seamless to the whole adventure instead of in the random battle instance like before, but I do wish it was a smidge more challenging.
However, riding around on Chocobo-back is easily my favorite way to travel the Grasslands, if for no other reason than I get to see Red XIII sit atop one like he’s people. This will never not be funny to me.
Going Side Questin’
Admittedly, because our time with Final Fantasy VII: Rebirth was limited at the preview event, I didn’t do a ton of the side quests, but there is plenty to do in the open world once things open up. I did happen to tackle a quest for Chloe which saw me head to the far end of the Grasslands to a meadow overlooking the city of Midgar to pick some flowers to a crown she’s making. It was a touching quest as Chloe was determined to honor her late mother but unable to make the trek herself.
Traveling the world is so much easier now on Chocobo-back also, but even on foot the new movement system shines as Cloud can now climb and drop down from ledges without needing to wait for those pesky blue arrow indicators to pop up signaling to players that he can climb something.
Those still exist, but now, with more traversal options, the world feels a bit more grounded, especially as it makes sense someone with Cloud’s SOLDIER training would be able to tackle a waist-high wall, for example. This doesn’t mean you can jump down from any cliff and roll the damage away Zelda-style, nor can Cloud climb just any surface, but it’s much expanded from how he was able to move in Midgar. Something about the open air helping to flex the muscles, maybe?
As I traveled through the Grasslands I also witnessed the change in the environment as we got closer to where Shinra had its grips into the world. As we got closer to the flower field Chloe sent us to, long pipes started to criss cross the horizon while the grassland and vegetation that seemed to flourish around me gave way to dry, dusty terrain. It was a clear reminder of the devastation Shinra’s aims do to the planet, and a great example of environmental storytelling from the developers.
Reaching the flower field, Cloud and Aerith proceed to pick the flowers Chloe would need. This whole experience was a nice break away from the frenetic and fast-paced combat some of the other side activities had me do. Instead, this more intimate moment allowed me to take a beat and take in the world around me. It was a fantastic change of pace that really helped spur me onwards towards the finish line of our session.
Midgardsormr Rises Again
In the original Final Fantasy VII, the Chocobo is needed to easily outrun the serpent in the swamp blocking the party’s path through the mountains on their way to Junon. In Final Fantasy VII Rebirth, this is also true - though the Midgardsormr is portrayed as something of an urban legend, seemingly as a way to scare travelers into renting a Chocobo instead of swimming through the muck.
Well, as the party approached dry land as I made my way on Piko’s back through the swamp, this seemed to hold true - that the Chocobo once again got me through safely.
Final Fantasy VII: Rebirth quickly disabused me of that notion as the Midgardsormr rose underneath my feet, scaring Piko and the rest of our Chocobos back towards Bill’s farm. The Serpent, licking its lips at the quarry that landed in his lap, poised to attack.
Combat in Final Fantasy VII: Rebirth is much like what we experienced in Remake. It’s an interesting take on the Active Time Battle system found in the OG release blended with real time elements, giving that old school feel with the fluidity of modern RPG combat. This is expanded on in Final Fantasy VII: Rebirth with a few additions, namely the skills you learn through upgrading your Folios.
Folios effectively replace the Core-based weapon upgrade system from Remake, giving each character a skill tree that you’ll upgrade over time. These skills range from unlocking new Synergy Skills and Abilities, a new wrinkle in the combat system on its own, to unlocking element-based abilities that let you cast Fire, Lighting, and more without expending MP.
Leveling a weapon is still important, though, and much like Remake where each weapon brought something new to the table, the same holds true here. However, the skills, stat increases, and more brought about by Folios are independent of your weapon, unlike in Remake, where you were slotting into cores for each.
What Folios offers is an even more customizable experience that I found dizzying in a short session like ours. It’ll take much more exploration of Folios to truly come to terms with what it has on offer, but at its most basic Folios allows you to create a build to match your playstyle, and focus on Synergies based on the party you might find yourself playing with most.
Weapons still level, and the more you use each weapon’s unique skill, the more proficient the character becomes with it, even to the point where you’re able to use that weapon skill regardless of what you have equipped. It was awesome to have access to the Buster Sword’s Focused Thrust to use on the Midgarsormr while also taking advantage of my new weapon’s Firebolt Bladeskill, which sees Cloud hurtle through the air, striking the Midgardsormr with a flame-infused blade.
Using abilities for each character earns them tick marks which, once enough have been acquired, can use an unlocked Synergy Ability. This could be Barret literally chucking Red XIII at an enemy or Tifa and Cloud teaming up to do a deluge of damage together. One of my favorites is Cloud and Aerith’s ability which sees Cloud use the power of Fireworks conjured by Aerith to deal damage.
Synergy Skills are less powerful affairs than their stronger counterparts but are able to be pulled off more frequently, such as Barret and Cloud’s Blade Batter, which sees Cloud literally bat bullets into an enemy because simply pointing and shooting is less effective, I guess?
It looks cool, though.
Bosses are still just a difficult as they were in Remake, and Midgardsormr is no different, going through various phases of combat which see the serpent super heat the water around the party, and even burrow deeply into the bog, only to shoot up under an unsuspecting party member and, well, eat them. One of the more impressive moments came when a mid-combat cutscene has the Midgardsormr shoot a flaming tornado at the party, igniting the trees and swamp around them, the serpent becoming more frenzied as the fight rushed towards its conclusion.
The strong narrative that has made Final Fantasy VII a timeless classic, especially among gamers my age, comes through beautifully even in these early moments - and that’s before we consider the effects the end of Remake and sundering fate’s grip on the party will have on Rebirth.
As I set the controller down following the closing moments of my preview session, I couldn’t help but be absolutely absorbed into Final Fantasy VII Rebirth. So many iconic moments from my childhood were represented in just this small snippet of the RPG, and it’s making me incredibly eager to get my hands on the full release, which is coming later this month. Though, if you can't wait, Square Enix just announced a demo, letting you get your feet wet in Rebirth before the RPG's release on the 29th.
Full Disclosure: Travel and accommodation were provided by Square Enix for the purposes of this preview.