Final Fantasy VII Rebirth review: Excessive, exhausting…and exhilarating

Final Fantasy VII Rebirth
Final Fantasy VII Rebirth

Please accept, for purposes of illustration, the following incomplete, largely spoiler-free list of things players will be asked to do or encounter in their 90 or so hours with Final Fantasy VII Rebirth—Square-Enix’s massive follow-up to its massively popular (and now, in hindsight, massively restrained)2020 title Final Fantasy VII Remake:

Fighting monsters, exploring dungeons, crafting items. Parkour, stealth, open-world map-sweeping. Mountain climbing, minecart riding, target shooting. Rocket League, Mario Kart, Star Fox. Memory matches, rhythm games, card battles. Treasure hunting, tag-playing, hide and seek, romance, horror, comedy. Reckoning with PTSD, meta-fiction, and the inevitability of death. Controllable helplessness, lightly interactive travel sequences, long-ish mid-fight cutscenes. Dress-up sequences, dating sim elements, and a piano-based version of Guitar Hero. Optional super-bosses, brutally challenging battle gauntlets, cleverly constructed combat trials. Inventory management, character builds, party composition. Long stretches of riding on giant birds, running across massive landscapes, collecting enormous amounts of litter scattered on the ground. Grapple hooking, wall-running, box-smashing. Rap metal, dance battles, crate-throwing. Dragging things very slowly. Walking across precarious ledges very slowly. Crawling through rubble very slowly. Interacting constantly with one of the best action-RPG combat systems Square-Enix has ever cooked up. Being presented, at every turn, with the apparently endless, daunting, exhausting, sometimes exhilarating sensation that there is always more game.

Rebirth is, in other words, a game of almost unimaginable, confident excess, taking the middle act of a base game, 1997’s Final Fantasy VII, and blowing it out until it’s significantly longer than the entirety of said source material ever was. At no point during its development does anyone appear to have said “Maybe we don’t need to turn this part into a playable minigame”; at no point has anyone at Square looked at the various tributaries of the original game’s sometimes meandering middle section and thought, “We could trim this a bit.” This is not a “trimming” game. It is a game where a 20-minute detour into an optional dungeon in the original game gets transformed into a two-hour ordeal where you play a robot cat, chucking crates at switches. Rebirth’s aspiration is to be all games, to all people, or die trying.

Final Fantasy VII Rebirth

Final Fantasy VII Rebirth

Developer/Publisher

Square Enix

Platform

PlayStation 5

Rating

T

As with Remake, which now looks positively teensy by comparison, Rebirth manages to pull at least some of this design megalomania off by anchoring everything it’s doing to two excellently crafted pillars. The first is its combat which, as mentioned above, is one of the best things late-era Square has ever developed, a blend of action, strategy, and deliberate planning that manages not to wear out its welcome after nearly four straight days of playtime. The other is its deft, heartwarming, and engaging handling of its iconic characters—if not always the story that contains them.

On the topic of that narrative: Rebirth picks up immediately after the abruptly cosmic ending of Remake, which saw taciturn mercenary Cloud Strife and his companions (tough-talking terrorist leader Barret, hometown crush Tifa, mysterious flower seller Aerith, and talking canine Red XIII) have their escape from the high-tech city of Midgar be suddenly interrupted by a battle with the ghostly “arbiters of fate,” somehow connected to Cloud’s semi-living nemesis, Sephiroth. Rebirth picks up (after an extended flashback sequence that also serves as the game’s tutorial/demo) with the crew still on the run from the totalitarian might of the Shinra Electric Power Company, and pursuing robed men who have some mysterious connection to Sephiroth.

Image: Square-Enix
Image: Square-Enix

As with Remake, what follows loosely tracks alongside the plot of the original game, albeit with a great deal of zoom-in. (Among its flaws, Rebirth continues to suffer from the previous games’ padding issues; not every screen of combat from the base game needs to be a full-fledged dungeon, but don’t try telling that to Square.) Where this level of focus works best is when it’s trained on the characters themselves: With excellent voice acting, and dauntingly good facial animations, the team at Square has taken a crew of core characters who were blocky abstractions and stereotypes in the base game, and built them into real people, each working through their own struggles and issues. Given that Final Fantasy VII was always a deceptively psychological game, Rebirth reaps real benefits from tracking Cloud’s slow mental degradation as Sephiroth’s strange power over him grows, or Tifa’s increasing weariness and concern over her childhood friend slipping away. It’s not that Rebirth can’t be excessive here, too—if your taste for anime-esque comedy scenes isn’t sufficient, expect to take some spiritual damage from the game’s sillier side—but it reaps mightily from taking its story seriously. (Whether it takes it too seriously will similarly come down to your taste for aggressive meta-fiction, which the game also deploys in abundance.)

The fighting, meanwhile, is an absolute joy—and the game knows it, presenting a huge variety of ways to experience it, whether that means hunting down rare monsters on the open-world map, battling it out in various arenas, or loading up your inescapable child companion Chadley’s ever-expanding combat simulator. With enemies that hit hard, and resources in short supply, Rebirth’s combat defies the easy and mindless button-pushing that marks so many action-RPGS. (Including, notably, last year’s Final Fantasy XVI.) Employing a tweaked version of the active-time battle system from Remake—which requires you to take risks and unleash basic attacks in order to build up a “time” resource that can be spent on bigger attacks, buffs, or healing moves—Rebirth expands on the system mightily, adding in three new characters (including ninja Yuffie from the Intergrade DLC) and a new “synergy” system that allows you to deploy special combo attacks between characters. (They also affect the game’s dating sim elements; Rebirth will be all games to all people.)

Image: Square-Enix
Image: Square-Enix

The upshot of this is fights where attention is as valuable a resource as your potions or materia, where finding a balance between doing damage, blocking attacks, and managing your enemies’ “Stagger” bar will mean the difference between life and death. Amazingly, the game continues to find new ways to tweak these systems throughout its massive run-time, meaning you’ll still be seeing new tricks even as you’re zooming toward its final challenges. And while the game can descend, every once in a while, into sheer challenge-fuck belligerence, for the most part if plays fair, if brutal, with what it’s presenting you. It’s a game where strategy doesn’t just mean “Hit the enemy with the element it’s weak to”; it rewards thinking and planning, with the only currency that really matters: Some of the most thrilling fights we’ve ever encountered in this genre.

It’s to Rebirth’s credit that it works to foreground these two pillars, story and fighting, even as it threatens to drown them in … everything else. Most especially, that means its open-world game design, which sees Cloud & Co. presented with a series of large maps, filled with incident, to explore, as they slowly check off various chores from a big list in between big story beats. Some of these chores are more fun than others—if we could never climb another tower to sync up map data in a video game for the rest of our lives, we’d die happy—but they’re all chores: Little tasks to add texture, maybe some friction, to the experience of getting from one place to another. Sometimes Rebirth is good about incorporating this stuff into its storytelling; sometimes you’re slowly climbing up a mountain on the back of a big bird, waiting to get to the next thing. It’s the weakness of the game’s “throw it in” approach: Some of the stuff you’re throwing in will inevitably be crap, and it can dilute the things the game does well. (In fact, the game is so distraction-heavy that one of the most notable setpieces from the original, high-tech amusement park the Golden Saucer, barely registers as different now than everywhere else you’ve been; who needs a dedicated playground when everyone you meet is ready to play cards or “frog-jumper” or dolphin racer at the drop of a hat?)

Image: Square-Enix
Image: Square-Enix

At the risk of belaboring this point, let’s zoom in on one decision that speaks to some wider design concerns: The choice to transform Chocobo Racing from the original game, which was only nominally interactive, into a fully-fledged Mario Kart-esque minigame, with more than a dozen races to perform in. The racing is fine, competently made, etc. But it’s certainly not as good as actually playing Mario Kart—and clearly exists only because someone somewhere said “It’d be cool if Chocobo Racing was a full racing minigame.” That’s Rebirth in a nutshell: Tons of vision, and no editors.

And that’s all before we get into even talking about what the game is actually about—besides, of course, “about 90 hours of your life”—any serious discussion of which would veer swiftly into “Square-Enix Spoiler Squads break into our house and take no prisoners” territory. We’ll try, though: If this sequence of the original game was all, ultimately, about a lack of choice—marked by a series of moments where that game wrested control from the players’ hands, as Cloud succumbed to the madness growing inside him—then Rebirth is aiming for a more nuanced exploration of that same concept. It’s a better story than the “friendship conquers all” tales of so many RPGS, even if, as everywhere in this game, it sometimes gives itself over to ludicrous, chaotic excess. (Expect a few eyerolls when you get to what Sephiroth and his rival for the fate of reality are really fighting over, especially if you’ve been as deeply mired in pop culture as we have over the last few years.) Befitting a middle chapter of a trilogy, it’s willing to get dark, weird, sad, and deliberately confusing. It also plays with prior knowledge in fascinating ways: Take it as read that Rebirth knows you know how this portion of the game ended the first time through, and plays that tension surprisingly well.

The fact is, it’s always easier, at the end of the day, to forgive ambition more readily than cowardice. And Final Fantasy VII Rebirth is a fearless, almost obsessively ambitious game. In our (very long, mostly completionist) time with it, it exhausted, exasperated, and occasionally infuriated us. It bored us, more than once, especially when we were in the midst of one of its incredibly slow “drag a box across the room, no, you can’t speed this up” sequences. But its thrills—in terms of combat, in terms of focus, and in terms of the breadth of the story it’s trying to tell—kept dragging us back. It’s paced bizarrely. It’s not as funny as it thinks it is. Its basic NPCs still kind of look like disconcerting mannequin people when deployed against the more well-realized character designs of its playable characters. But when it works (and it works when it really needs to) it’s exactly as good as its designers clearly dreamed of it being. It swings hard, all the time, at everything, and the result somehow averages out, against all odds, to an unlikely home run.