Wednesday, February 07, 2024
With Midgar in the rearview mirror, Final Fantasy VII Rebirth sets its sights on an open world only hinted at in FF VII Remake. For anyone familiar with the original Final Fantasy VII, released in 1997 for PS1, they'll already be well aware of what awaits within those verdant expanses, but, based upon the few hours we've had to explore Rebirth's expanded world map, few will expect something this sprawling and detailed. Suffice it to say, you'll be needing a chocobo pretty sharpish if you want to efficiently traverse those vast stretches of swaying grass, rugged mountains, and arid desert, the sum total of which has come to be known as 'Gaia'. It looks like this one's going to be massive.
There's an awful lot that's new, too, from the tactical 'Queen's Blood' card game, to the character bond system that ties in with 'Synergy' attacks in combat. A 'Folio' system, meanwhile, enables you to upgrade each character's combat abilities (through a skill tree), and craft useful items. It's another string to the FF VII Remake follow-up's RPG bow, lending some additional depth to proceedings. In short, Rebirth is a sequel in more ways than one, as our extensive hands-on amply demonstrates. This is no more apparent than during the moment you first step out into that vibrant open world, leaving the sleepy town of Kalm to brave the orc-ridden Grasslands.
This all follows the game's opening chapter, a flashback to five years prior in Cloud's hometown of Nibelheim, where he's embarking upon a performance review mission with Sephiroth. Anyone familiar with the original game will understand the narrative importance of this sequence, as it explains the silver-haired, cat-eyed antagonist's motivations. And, in Rebirth, it's given even greater weight, as we get to spend a considerable amount of time with Sephiroth, learning more about his origins. The same is true of Cloud Strife, who (as his surname helpfully suggests) has suffered his own traumas, as he visits old haunts and relives past memories – it's all remarkably well done.
While Square Enix could have taken the path of least resistance and continued Final Fantasy VII Remake's story without changing much, the studio's development ethos has apparently shot off in entirely the opposite direction. Being able to play mini-games (including a fully playable piano), swim around, enjoy more options in combat, complete ‘Odd Job’ side quests, and sneak up on chocobos to tame and ride them is but the tip of the iceberg. FF VII Remake was hugely ambitious, but Rebirth is evidently upping the ante, not only in terms of sheer size and scope, but in how the combat mechanics have been subtly upgraded. While the majority of what's here is unchanged, there are one or two (almost imperceptible) tweaks that make it feel more fluid and gratifying.
The primary changes are a timed block that can nullify damage if executed correctly, and a lovely, chewy parry. Otherwise, this is cosily familiar, with Active and Classic modes to choose from, the ability to switch stances to deal damage with strong attacks, and a stagger gauge for each enemy so you can 'pressure' them until they're left vulnerable to a punishing flurry of strikes. You can pause the action to select spells and items, unleash a Limit Break or Synergy attack. It worked nicely in FF VII Remake, and, on the evidence of the first four hours we've played of Rebirth, it still works well. It's crucial that the combat is interesting, too, as it seems you'll be fighting a lot of monsters while traversing that vast open world.
Of course, four hours isn't nearly enough to scratch beneath the surface of what's in store, and riding a chocobo, battling two bosses, and attempting to wrap our head around the intricacies of the Queen's Blood card game, is but a fraction of what Rebirth will be serving up when it launches later this month. Beyond the horizon there's the Gold Saucer, the streets of Junon with its gargantuan cannon, and so much more to look forward to, regardless of whether it's your first time with Cloud and the gang, or another unadulterated hit of nostalgia you're after. Final Fantasy VII Rebirth looks poised to deliver on all fronts, continuing the story in a meaningful way, while eclipsing FF VII Remake where combat and exploration is concerned.
Will Final Fantasy VII Rebirth be bigger and better than its forebear, then? While 'bigger and better' might be a fairly glib summation, it certainly fits here. We'll get to know for sure on 29th February.