Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth Review - Destiny's Child

  • First Released Feb 29, 2024
  • PS5

Rebirth keeps its narrative focus on characters while bringing a new dimension to combat, but it stumbles in pivotal moments.

In the final moments of Final Fantasy 7 Remake, Cloud finds himself at Destiny's Crossroads. Sephiroth has torn a hole in the fabric of reality, and a thrashing gateway into an unknown future beckons. It's a daunting prospect that is made even more so when Aerith says the next step in their journey will involve "changing more than fate itself." This was a statement of intent from developer Square Enix that suggested its retelling of one of the most beloved stories in video game history may not play out how fans expect, or perhaps want. It's a moment in which characters and players alike share in the unsettling nature of uncertainty. Before they step through the gateway, Tifa asks Aerith, "What will we find on the other side?" to which she replies, "Freedom. Boundless, terrifying freedom." And she was right.

Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth is a game about a struggle between fate and freedom, but also the delicate balance between authorship and agency. Through gameplay systems that encourage exploration, Rebirth empowers players to discover the world around them and chart their path through it. And through its story, it presents a compelling narrative about the destructive impact of exploiting natural resources, as well as the human causes and consequences of radical environmentalism. But it's a story that, ultimately, is defined and destined to end in very specific ways, for better or for worse. The equilibrium between contrasting ideologies is rarely perfect, and that's evident in Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth, a game that is rewarding for the dozens of hours it enables agency, but is frustrating in the few hours that author the series' future.

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While the events of Remake were confined to Midgar and largely linear, Rebirth pushes back the borders to let players explore new horizons on their terms. Across 60-plus hours, Cloud, Aerith, Tifa, Barrett, and a few other party members follow in the footsteps of the mysterious pale-skinned and dark-robed individuals briefly encountered in Remake. Although they are largely incapable of communicating beyond pained groans, they are nonetheless key to tracking down Sephiroth and stopping him from destroying the world. Their slow onward march is what plots the group's course through the game's various locales.

The journey begins in the verdant fields of the Grasslands just outside Midgar, an immediate and stark contrast to Remake, which takes place primarily in the greys of a city built upon industrial machinery and under the boot of the Shinra Electric Company. The Grasslands are lush, with quaint homesteads to stumble upon, Chocobo ranches to visit, and dangerous wetlands to negotiate. Like every location in the game, it's all brought to life with an eye-catching vibrancy accentuated by a rousing orchestral soundtrack built on instantly recognizable musical motifs. The Grasslands are the ideal place to instill the sense of openness that Rebirth uses to differentiate itself from the previous entry in the series, while also driving home the magnitude of the task that lies ahead.

From there, it's off to the lower reaches of Junon, a transport hub that exists in the shadow of Midgar. It's a place that was given life and opportunity by Shinra and its industry of siphoning mako from the planet but is also stifled by it. The red rocks and majestic geological formations of Cosmo Canyon and the thriving jungles of Gongaga further display the planet at its most beautiful and show that communities can form a mutually beneficial harmony with nature. Costa Del Sol, meanwhile, is an exotic hub of tourism where people have an easygoing attitude and Gold Saucer stands as a monument to opulence built upon the exploitation of a precious resource.

Traveling between them involves navigating treacherous mythril mines, sailing on cruise ships, taking cable cars, and using other forms of transportation that bridge regions in a way that creates the illusion of a connected world. The seams between them are noticeable even when it becomes possible to freely move around via land, sea, or air, but it's never a problem because they are substantial enough to create an overwhelming sense of scale. They also have a diversity of aesthetics that makes each region distinct and are given continuity through narrative-driven pathing. It might not be an open world in the traditional sense, but its vastness certainly makes it feel like one.

While it may be more appropriate to say Rebirth is made up of open zones, the things you do within them are typical open-world genre fodder. What makes Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth remarkable is that it executes a familiar design template in service of reinforcing key themes of the game. It's all driven by World Intel, which returning character and hyper-boffin Chadley uses to build a database of the world. Completing what is essentially busywork and generating world intel allows Chadley to develop and enhance Materia, items that bestow magic abilities and skills on characters.

The gameplay loop involves finding Remnawave towers, scaling them, and then activating them so they reveal more activities to do in the surrounding area. From there, you can do combat assignments, grab treasure from excavation sites, take on powerful fiends, investigate sanctuaries, or collect resources. On paper, it's the ordinary and uninspiring Ubisoft formula many grew tired of years ago, but its implementation is more thoughtful than it seems.

Final Fantasy 7's story as a whole is about the damage a parasitic corporation is doing to the planet by draining it of mako, which in turn is harming the lifestream, an ethereal energy that gives life to the planet. Remake explored the consequences of this on a small and very human scale by focusing on Midgar and its people. Through Cloud, we witnessed how the lives of ordinary citizens have been destroyed by Shinra and how its ongoing excavation of mako has allowed it to gain complete control over every facet of society. This perspective was essential to justifying the actions of Cloud and Avalanche, who are effectively eco-terrorists. By empathizing with people, Avalanche's actions and fight for the people became righteous.

Rebirth broadens that perspective to show the fight is also for the future of the planet. To illustrate how much higher the stakes are, it needs to show the impact that Shinra is having on the world beyond Midgar and how people in all corners of that world have had their lives turned upside down. It successfully does this by engendering a deeper connection and understanding of the world in the player. On a fundamental level, it asks them to explore their surroundings to find activities, which helps mentally map out the topography of each location and develop familiarity with it, but then each activity feeds into strengthening that connection to the world in exchange for tangible rewards and character growth.

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Lifesprings, for example, are locations where the lifestream has manifested as natural, raw mako. Until now, mako has only been presented as a fuel or as materia, but the areas around lifesprings are where nature is thriving, with an abundance of natural resources that can be collected and utilized to craft healing items, thus reinforcing the idea that the lifestream and mako are precious and life-giving. Excavation sites require players to use a Chocobo to sniff out buried transmuter chips that can be used to forge equipment, but these locations are also the scars of so-called progress that comes at the cost of diminishing the power of the lifestream, so players get a first-hand look at what Shinra is doing to the planet. Combat assignments involve defeating specific fiends in the world, but the player is presented with in-depth information about targets that contributes to an evolving understanding of the ecology of the world and how abuse of mako has transformed it.

The combat simulator is also where summons can be challenged and, if defeated, called to provide aid in battle. However, they live up to their legendary status by being incredibly difficult to fight, taking very little damage, and even unleashing attacks that can instantly wipe out the entire party. Beating a summon is nigh impossible for all but the most patient and skilled players and rarely a realistic endeavor to pursue. However, one of the activities out in the world involves finding Sanctuaries, which contain crystalline knowledge of these mythical beasts. Gathering information from a summon's designated sanctuaries provides Chadley with insight that can be utilized to make the battles easier. With each additional sanctuary, the summon battle becomes less punishing until the fight is very manageable. Again, this is an extremely smart way of taking a rote activity, imbuing it with narrative significance, and also paying it off with gameplay implications.

Finding some of these activities can be tricky as they are often tucked away in dark corners of the map or placed at heights that require scaling structures to reach, but the game uses in-game signposting and guidance to direct the player without making it mindless. Springseeker owls will come to you and hoot to get your attention, then lead you in the direction of a lifespring, much like the foxes in Ghost of Tsushima. For fast-travel points, an adorable baby Chocobo will excitedly bounce over to lead you to Chocobo Stops that have fallen into disrepair so you can fix them up and get them working again. All the while, unlocking towers and completing activities will generate intel points that Chadley can use to make new materia or enhance them.

The gameplay in these activities is repeated across each region and rarely takes unexpected turns into new territory or puts a unique spin on the process, so it says a lot that even then there isn't a single part of Rebirth's overworld activities that comes across as throwaway or pointless. Whether you enjoy doing them is a matter of personal preference, but they consistently felt valuable to me. Every activity is paired with a gameplay system that is impacted by completing it, and the loop of completing world intel in a region is difficult to break out of. It's an almost entirely frictionless experience that has meaningful rewards and contributes to the feeling of growth. But, more than that, it fosters a closeness to the game world and gives weight to the larger struggle to save the planet.

Remake brought a disparate group of people together with the unified goal of stopping Shinra. But that was a process of discovery that involved peeling the layers back on each member of Avalanche to find what they're fighting for and why. In doing so, the group grew closer together, old friendships were renewed, and new ones were forged as they resolved to fight for their futures. In that pivotal moment at Destiny's Crossroads, Aerith pleaded for her friends' help in ending the lifestream's suffering and saving the planet from destruction. "I know that, together, we can do this," she said. Call it earnest or saccharine, but at the soul of Final Fantasy as a franchise is the bond between people and what they can achieve together. And that's another theme that is also emphasized through Rebirth's gameplay--specifically its combat systems.

The game largely plays the same as Remake; that is to say, it is an expertly constructed suite of systems that blend the responsiveness of a satisfying action game with the considered and methodical nature of a turn-based strategy game. This hybrid was a revelation in Remake, and it has only been enhanced in Rebirth. The improvement comes from a focus on the synergy between characters, which ratchets up the dynamism of combat while also introducing new mechanics to employ in the heat of battle. While every character has a basic attack that can be executed repeatedly by hammering a button, special actions are governed by an ATB bar that is split into segments. Abilities, spells, and the use of items each have a cost associated with them. The only way to pay that cost is to fill up segments of the ATB bar by attacking or defending. That's how it goes in Remake, too, but in Rebirth the rate at which the ATB fills up is noticeably slower, which means that each character will face more of an uphill struggle when going it alone. However, Rebirth introduces synergy skills that combine the efforts of multiple characters and, when used, speed up how quickly the ATB bar fills up.

Synergy skills can be offensive or defensive and are free to use repeatedly. They alone won't win you any fights since most aren't particularly damaging, but they can have utility beyond topping up the ATB quickly. Aerith can, for example, request another character step in front of danger to defend her briefly, giving her enough breathing room to use an item or fire off a spell uninterrupted. Cloud can have his sword enhanced by Tifa's destructive power or Aerith's magic and deliver a charged overhead slam, increasing damage a bit. These synergy skills are essential to being successful in battle.

Rebirth is noticeably harder than Remake because it makes specific demands of players. The previous game's pressure and stagger system returns, but it's much harder to push enemies onto the back foot since the game is strict about exploiting weaknesses to reach the pressured and staggered states. Enemies also pack a much harder punch this time, so it's imperative to figure out their weaknesses using the Assess ability and then hammer away at it as quickly as possible. The only way to do that is to execute synergy skills to quickly build ATB bars, then fire off elemental spells, buff other abilities, or put teammates in a position to do the same. As an added wrinkle, the use of certain normal abilities that are marked with an icon also builds towards the use of a drastically more powerful synergy ability. When two characters hit the required amount of synergy, they can combine for a flashy cinematic move that looks cool, but also deals significant damage and applies buffs.

Cloud and Tifa can combine for Relentless Rush, during which he launches her toward the enemy so the duo can attack in tandem. If used on a staggered foe, it will lengthen the amount of time they stay in that state. Red XIII and Barret can pair up for Overfang, during which Barret throws Red XIII at enemies at high speed to do damage but also raises both of their limit levels, quickening the process of accessing the super powerful limit breaks. Repeated use of synergy abilities increases the cost, incentivizing variety so you can always be ready to turn the tide of battle should you need it.

Rebirth's combat is built on a proven framework, which means the underlying systems have been established and set in place. However, the addition of synergy allows the game to create conditions where careful strategies need to be employed, and they can even enable ridiculous combinations of abilities that are borderline game-breaking, but so much fun to pull off. The skill ceiling is pretty high for those interested in really pushing the systems to their limits. Overall though, battles are less like freeform action and more like combat puzzles, and the gameplay is better because of it. There are also situations where keeping it simple and mashing out basic attacks until you can fire off a spell works, too, so there's a good mix of demanding and mindless combat.

Seeing characters relying on each other constantly and having back-and-forths as they tear down enemies brings an exhilarating new depth to the way combat plays, feels, and looks. It leverages the events of Remake and the many battles these characters have gone through together to show the closeness that party has with each other, making a narrative dynamic and the lynchpin of its combat, which is a little stroke of genius. It's another fantastic execution of the idea that themes can be leveraged to strengthen gameplay mechanics.

Rebirth also carries over progression systems from Remake. Characters level up by accruing experience in battle that will, in time, improve stats such as attack and defense. On top of that, AP is generated and contributes towards leveling up materia, strengthening the potency of magic and unlocking higher tiers of spells--the only way to use the firaga spell is to make sure the fire materia is developed, for example. Similarly, weapons have unique abilities that, when used, raise your proficiency with said weapon. Once mastered, the unique ability of a weapon can then be utilized even when you're not wielding it.

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New for Rebirth, however, are weapon skills and the Folio system. The former is the ability to unlock unique weapon skills by raising the overall weapon level. These skills are slotted into weapons in the same way materia is, and provide a variety of bonuses such as raising stats, increasing the effectiveness of character-specific states, or buffing magical abilities. It's another small way to enhance that sense of growth. Folios are themed manuscripts specific to each character: The Art of Swordplay for Cloud, Way of the Fist for Tifa, Sharpshooter's Companion for Barret, and so on. As you level up, skill points become available and can be spent to define a style for characters by unlocking certain stat boosts or gauge behaviors. For example, it's possible to create a defensive approach for Cloud that bolsters his ability to take damage or to focus on getting the limit bar filled as quickly as possible by making him an offensive powerhouse. The system isn't open-ended to the point where there are lots of possible builds and for the most part it is quite easy to unlock the majority of upgrades, even if it can be a slow process to do that. As a result, it's beneficial to focus on a more specific build and adjust for the situation by resetting and redistributing the points. The Folio is also where additional synergy abilities are unlocked, as well as elemental spells that are executed using ATB instead of MP. This might not seem like a big deal, but ensuring everyone can always do an elemental spell should tell you about how important exploiting weaknesses is.

The biggest question going into Rebirth was how it would handle its story and characterization. In particular, if and how it would change how the story has already played out. For the most part, it doesn't make any drastic alterations, and the broad beats of the story that happen after Cloud and Avalanche leave Midgar are the same. Rebirth does what Remake did and brings color and richness to the narrative that simply wasn't possible before by delving deeper into its characters. The find-Sephiroth-and-save-the-world narrative thread gets pushed to the background and left dangling for significant stretches of the game so the main cast can take center stage, and it works very well.

Although Remake alluded to backstories and explored them on a very surface level, Cloud was always the main driver of the narrative. It was the story of a mercenary who only ever fought for himself learning to fight for and with others. This time, he effectively plays a supporting role in the story of the other characters up until something Sephiroth-related happens. Much of his story is told through the lens of Tifa, a childhood friend who has slowly developed a closeness with him. Cloud's history is murky, even to himself, but Tifa has the clearest recollection of it, and as his mental state begins to spin out of control under the manipulation of Sephiroth, she serves as his anchor and it leads to some tender moments. But at the same time, she has her own traumatic history to deal with, having lost her father as a consequence of Shinra and Sephiroth's actions. Importantly, the backstories and the exploration of them don't do anything to diminish the characters, and in fact, make each character more human and deserving of empathy. While Tifa has her moments of weakness, she also rises above the challenges to show she has the inner strength to match her outer one.

Barret returns to his hometown and is met with a cold welcome. His demeanor changes from the boisterous, idealistic de facto leader of Avalanche to being meek and unsure of himself. He's riddled with guilt and it's not until his tragic history is laid bare that we learn why this is the case. We see what set him on the path of fighting for the planet and bringing down Shinra. Barret is a family man, and the game's emotional depiction of the pain and responsibility he shoulders is an eye-opening look at what lies beneath his confident surface. Red XII's similarly tragic past is contextualized upon his return to Cosmo Canyon, where we learn much more about him as he learns about the role his family played in the legacy of his people. There is care and attention paid to these characters that are befitting of the high esteem they hold within the culture of video games. There's a reason Final Fantasy 7's characters are so beloved, and Rebirth only strengthens that.

At times, the writing and delivery of dialogue can be unnatural or awkward, but if you're able to buy into the melodrama, it's refreshing how unapologetically earnest each character is, and the exaggerated nature of each character's personality is scene-setting for memorable moments. One such example is Cloud having to give a rousing speech to Shinra troopers and, although it's a goofy scenario, he slowly loses himself as Aerith and Tifa egg him on and it reveals a side of Cloud that wasn't seen in Remake or the original game. We think of Cloud as a stoney-face, brooding, big sword boy, but it turns out he loves a good pep talk when he's in comfortable surroundings. Moments like this are the soul of Rebirth's narrative and frequently exhibit excellent character work that pushes past what might initially seem cringy.

These individual stories are bolstered by moments that enhance the relationship between characters. Party members each have bonds with Cloud, the strength of which grows depending on dialogue choices and, more importantly, side missions. Across each of the game's regions, there are people in need of a helping hand. These missions are rarely exciting from a gameplay perspective, but they provide a nice tonal shift that brings some levity to events. They also provide the opportunity to get a better sense of how Shinra has changed the world by speaking to people who hold different ideals and perspectives. It's not always doom and gloom, as on more than a few occasions I found myself amidst people who have managed to find joy in the simple things in life or figured out how to use the land respectfully to thrive. For every story of tragedy and loss at the hands of Shinra, there is a story that inspires hope and a reason to fight on.

Cloud is usually paired with another character for these side missions, so they're also beneficial for getting quality time with characters. Not only does this deepen Cloud's bond with each one, but it also makes them more well-rounded as characters. They're also where we often get to see how Cloud has changed from the stoic, emotionless mercenary into someone who cares for his friends. There's a moment where Cloud promises he'll be there for someone, and their response is a far cry from the way they would have reacted in Remake--it was a genuinely sweet moment that shows how far they've come. The bond level also comes into play later in the game when you have to decide who to spend some quality time with. Rebirth is also surprisingly funny, and much of that humor is found in the side quests. Some of it comes through the writing and comedic delivery of lines, but there are quite a few wacky situations and hijinx that are played for laughs, and the game nails them. There's also a self-referential aspect that Rebirth revels in; Fort Condor, for example, switches the art style of the game to imitate the blocky character models of the original game, except in super high resolution. That style pops up in other places, too, and it's always a delight to see it.

In between these moments is where the main narrative plays out and, unfortunately, it is much less consistent in quality and confident in its delivery. I found the pacing of the game to be a significant issue, and it's largely due to the middle stretch being too much like the original version of Final Fantasy 7. A significant chunk of the game becomes, at best, a distraction and, at worst, filler. After building up steam, the main story comes to a grinding halt as the gang essentially goes on multiple vacations and makes frivolous activities their main focus. There are key moments within these chapters that move the plot forward, introduce characters, or carry a lot of emotional weight, but they are held hostage by gameplay that is tonally out of place and feels like padding. The payoff of these moments is lessened by the exhausting process of jumping through hoops to get to them.

Gold Saucer is the most emblematic of the issue. It is an iconic part of the original game, and while the new version is undoubtedly impressive visually and how it captures the feeling of being in a theme park, it primarily exists as a container for a bunch of minigames, just like its previous incarnation. These are fun and nostalgic, and it's enjoyable to see the party delight in having fun through sequences that are quintessentially and unapologetically video gamey, but they're also brick walls to narrative momentum and can't be bypassed. Instead, experiencing disparate gameplay ideas packaged up as minigames becomes the story, and it's hard not to get irked when the gang is playing carnival games, frolicking around in beachwear, or racing chocobo for hours on end while the fate of the world hangs in the balance.

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I'm all for minigames and I understand that Gold Saucer is an iconic part of the original game. The amount of time I spent playing Queens Blood, a fantastic new in-universe card game that gave me flashbacks to a Triple Triad, is proof I love a good distraction, but they're not a distraction--they're the focus. It harkens back to a time when gameplay ideas defined what the story would be, as opposed to being a reflection of the more sophisticated storytelling opportunities we have now, so I found myself forced to run around a confusingly laid-out theme park going from one minigame to the next just so I could get back to the freedom of the outside world and pursue the main quest again. This happens just enough times back-to-back to nullify any whimsical quality that playing these minigames has, while also disrupting the pace of the game in a major way.

Final Fantasy Rebirth doesn't falter when it comes to individual stories. They make up the vast majority of the game's runtime and narrative substance, but in the moments that are positioned to have the major consequences for how the story plays out going forward, Rebirth stumbles repeatedly. I found myself confused and frustrated by the time I rolled credits. It wasn't enough to spoil how much I enjoyed the experience as a whole, but enough to be worried that the story may be going somewhere that isn't currently inspiring much enthusiasm from me.

The prospect of a reimagined Final Fantasy 7 story that acknowledges the past while also exploring a new future is exciting. My biggest concern was that the setup at the end of Remake and the implications of it could lead to the story becoming convoluted and, sadly, that's exactly what happens in the final stretch of the game. Each time I think about it, I'm either less certain of what is going on and what it means or I'm perplexed at why it happened that way. I loved that Remake folded in all the additional ideas that expanded the world of Final Fantasy 7, and Rebirth was poised to lean into that further, but it ended up making the core story much worse and not doing right by a character key to that element. I can understand what Square Enix was going for and it's an idea that I like because it is full of potentially interesting narrative pathways, but its delivery is so poor that I don't think most people will see that potential.

There is one specific moment that has been the subject of will-they-won't-they speculation for years, and how it resolves manages to be confusing to the point of being incomprehensible. For the original Final Fantasy 7, it became an iconic moment crystalized in the minds of millions by its emotionally devastating impact--and for many, it changed the way they thought about video game characters. In Rebirth, it is bewildering and undermines multiple characters, diminishing and obfuscating qualities that define who they are, the decisions they make, and their motivations for doing so, while also being unclear about what is actually happening. Aerith, in particular, is robbed of a moment that is so crucial to her character by the messy delivery; the message is lost among narrative noise that wasn't there before and it's so uncharacteristic of a game that otherwise is sharp in how it presents its characters. In my case, there was also an instance where the way the story unfolded and a character behaved contradicted how the actions I had taken up until that point dictated it should have played out. Of course, all of this is open to interpretation and perhaps some will find meaning where I couldn't, but having to untangle a story in a desperate bid to make sense of it isn't what I wanted to be doing when the journey was complete.

Thankfully, what Final Fantasy Rebirth succeeds at eclipses what it fumbles. It's a superbly designed gameplay experience that instills a sense of freedom while also making exploration rewarding in a meaningful way. Refined gameplay that makes character synergy a focal point breathes new life into the slick and satisfying combat, and all the while it reinforces the underlying themes of the story. As a game that has the unenviable task of living up to one of the strongest legacies in the medium, it is a worthy second chapter. Whether Square Enix can bring it all together in the third and final part will be the subject of much discussion from here on out. Just like at Destiny's Crossroads, an unknown future beckons once again, and anything is still possible.

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The Good

  • The loop of exploring and discovering remains compelling throughout
  • Synergy systems bring a new dimension to combat that makes it even more satisfying
  • The character-driven stories continue to dig deep into the characters to make them memorable
  • Side activities are given narrative weight

The Bad

  • The ending doesn't work and is a mess
  • Forced minigames disrupt the pacing

About the Author

Tamoor played Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth for 60 hours and is likely going to spend a whole lot more with Queens Blood. Review code was provided by the publisher.