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Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth Is an Essential Update of a Classic RPG

“Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth” is one of the more ambitious RPGs of the past few years. It mostly covers the second act of 1997’s “Final Fantasy 7,” where Cloud, Tifa, Barret, and Aerith chase Sephiroth, a former war hero turned vicious murderer, across continents oceans in a bid to stop him from destroying the planet. This portion of the original “FF7,” released in 1997, is messy and unfocused, with what amounts to a MacGuffin hunt as its foundation, and it only establishes an identity in its latter half, before the game switches to a different focus at the end anyway. That’s not an easy or even appealing concept to build an entire, lengthy new remake around, but Square Enix answered the challenge with an elegant narrative whose earnestness helps cover some of the game’s clumsier design aspects.     

Chasing Sephiroth is still the driving force behind Cloud’s trek across the world, but Square Enix developed a strong solution for the complete lack of narrative structure in the original. In addition to the mysteries surrounding Sephiroth, “Rebirth” balances questions of multiple worlds colliding that its predecessor “Final Fantasy 7 Remake” (2020) raised and, more importantly, creates dozens of new stories to fill the original’s void. Every region and town you visit has problems of its own that tie into some aspect of the main story, which, in turn, act as a catalyst for stronger character development and builds a foundation for the story’s climax.

Telling a story with a coherent beginning, middle, and end sounds like the most basic of accomplishments, but given how “Remake” and even the original “FF7” struggled with that, it still comes across as a noteworthy achievement in “Rebirth.” The downside is that it gives “Rebirth” an episodic feel in its first 15 hours or so, which grows a little stale and predictable. Every time I became tired of the setup, though, Square Enix reignited my interest with some little character detail or unexpected development in a side quest. Those are the biggest strengths of “Rebirth,” attention to detail and a willingness to stop and develop important ideas and personalities into coherent and worthwhile themes.

“Rebirth” still touches on identity, but in a more refined manner, with the idea of loss at its center. It’s not just about Cloud’s lost past, either. Tifa, primarily an emotional support character for Cloud in the original game, mourns the loss of her home and the life she built in Midgar. Barrett fears the loss of his child and his identity as a parent. Even Yuffie, previously afflicted with a one-note personality and flimsy motivations, fights to recover her family’s lost sense of pride in themselves and their homeland.

The original game hinted at these deeper personalities, though only in brief conversations — never in ways that felt substantial or even relevant to the broader picture. How these characters navigate their fears, tragedies, and hopes is as much the story of “Rebirth” as Sephiroth’s quest for vengeance or even the mystery of the Whispers, and it builds a new, richer, more complex legacy for “Final Fantasy 7” that goes beyond questions of who lives and dies. On a practical level, the cast feels richer and more thoughtfully considered as a result of these changes, which helps carry “Rebirth” through its slow beginning and lends extra gravity to the game’s more serious events.

“Rebirth” splits this important character development between quiet moments in the main story and side quests, the latter of which it handles in a much more refined fashion compared to “Remake.” Where “Remake” had its heroes finding cats or making repairs for people with no connection to them — and that they’d never see again — “Rebirth” ties its quests more closely with each character’s personal stories. An early quest in the second chapter, for example, has Aerith bond with a young girl whose situation mirrors her own. It even ends with a rare instance of the always-awkward Cloud showing affection and instilling confidence in the child, an especially poignant moment considering how his own fragility and lack of confidence are at the heart of “Final Fantasy 7.”

Even standard “hunt this monster” quests have at least a kernel of emotional significance at their center, and often something even more substantial. In one instance, Cloud agrees to help a farmer exterminate a mutated wolf preying on local cattle; Red XIII tags along to help track the beast, and the quest turns into a brief discussion of how Red’s captivity damaged his body and, by extension, his sense of self.

These scenes usually culminate with a branching dialogue choice for Cloud, where his choice influences how strong his relationship with the other character grows. The best scenarios leave the “correct” choice vague. Should you go along with Tifa’s memory test? Will Barrett mind if you tease him gently about his overparenting tendencies, or could it bring you closer together? Too often, though, the choices make deciding on the right course of action obvious. There’s only one way an interaction where you tell Red XIII that he’s useless will end, for example, and since deeper relationships lead to stronger abilities in battle, there’s no benefit from indulging Cloud’s indifference or snarky responses. Still, even in moments where “Rebirth” dressed the beneficial choice in flashing lights so I wouldn’t miss it, I felt a spark of warmth after seeing the result and how it brings two damaged people closer together.

Shinra and its environmental exploitation took a backseat to the Sephiroth drama in the original “FF7,” but “Rebirth” builds on both concepts — Shinra as a fascist corporation-government and the importance of environmental awareness. Everywhere that Cloud visits is a reminder of Shinra’s brutality, and almost every mission or activity outside the main storyline has some element of rebellion baked into it, from passive resistance to naked aggression against the company. It’s a smart way to keep the world of “Rebirth” from feeling as passive as it does in the original, and I suspect these developments will play an even more important role in the trilogy’s eventual conclusion.

All that may make “Rebirth” sound grim, and it certainly has its heavier moments. However, it also revives a sense of the absurd that I haven’t seen in “Final Fantasy” since the late 1990s. You’ll shift from something serious, like discussing the assassination of a Shinra executive, one moment to something out of a comedy the next — escorting a dog to the accompaniment of a bubbly techno-pop song and a chorus of “bow-wow” sounds in the background, for example. 

On the other hand, Square Enix handles narrative challenges in “Rebirth” with a finesse that its approach to traditional RPG dungeons lacks. While environmental puzzles never counted among the series’ strong points, they feel particularly shallow and clunky in “Rebirth.” Areas such as the Mythril Cave and even the prologue’s Nibelheim Reactor last longer than they should, and with button pushing and cart-moving as the extent of their challenges, they quickly grow tiresome. “Final Fantasy 7 Remake” suffered from a similar problem, and it’s disappointing to see the same mistake repeated again. 

Square Enix paid much more attention to the world outside these dungeons, though. “Rebirth” takes the traditional RPG’s world map and turns it into an open world that manages to capture the excitement I used to feel when exploring in retro RPGs, but without the disappointment of realizing there’s nothing worthwhile tucked away in the corners, forests, and hidden areas.

“Rebirth” has no shortage of secrets squirrels away in every region. Chadley, a humanoid robot that Shinra’s mad scientist Professor Hojo created, reprises their role from “Remake” and tasks Cloud with surveying the environment in exchange for rare Materia — valuable items that unlock new combat abilities. These surveys range from battling monsters to finding shrines dedicated to regional deities and activating Remnawave Towers, relics of a pre-Shinra communication system that add objective markers to your map and instantly remove any sense of wonder from finding surprises on your own.

Some of these discoveries tie into more interesting quest chains, but it’s pretty standard open-world stuff for the most part. However, I appreciate how “Rebirth” adds some extra meaning to it all. Activating Remnawave Towers, healing the planet — “Rebirth” contextualizes every accomplishment as a small act of rebellion against Shinra, a step on the road toward building a group of allies capable of eventually standing against the company. It doesn’t actually affect the story’s course, though the framing — and the extra regional history Square Enix wrapped up in some of these discoveries — make it more enjoyable anyway. 

Square Enix also ironed out the battle problems from “Remake” in this installment. “Rebirth” uses the system that its predecessor established, where Cloud and company use standard attacks to fill up the series’ signature Active Time Battle meter and can pause the action to activate magic or powerful abilities once the meter fills up. Synergy Abilities took the spotlight in “Rebirth” marketing promotions, and while they’re just as fun and flashy as they looked in trailers, Synergy Skills and one other new skill type are the literal game changers. These comparatively weak abilities involve another character in the party and can activate independently of the active character’s ATB meter. 

That frees you from constantly switching between characters to fill their meters and encourages creative experimentation in building parties, and the inclusion of new magic abilities that cost no MP give you even greater flexibility. You can stack elemental skills on almost anyone else and use them to exploit enemy weaknesses without getting stuck in a party configuration you don’t like. It plays like the fulfillment of what Square Enix envisioned with Final Fantasy XV’s battle system, and while “Rebirth” might be more of a traditional RPG than “Final Fantasy XVI,” combat feels more robust and just plain fun.

“Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth” struggles with its pacing and some design elements. However, structural issues and dungeon designs aside, it’s easy to see “Rebirth” as justification for Square Enix’s decision to split “Final Fantasy 7,” originally a 30-hour RPG, into a three-part saga. “Remake” expanded on character personalities, but “Rebirth” deepens them and their connections to each other and the broader plot. The result isn’t just a better version of “Final Fantasy 7,” it’s one of the strongest installments in this franchise in years.   

The publisher provided a review copy of this title on PS5. It will be released on February 29. 2024.  

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