Final Fantasy VII Remake is a tough act to follow. That’s not just because Square Enix set a new bar for action RPGs with its laser-focused Midgar deep dive. Rather, it’s because the high-concept meta-narrative culminates in its heroes killing the very concept of fate and freeing themselves from the predestined path established by the original 1997 classic. Where in the world can you possibly go from there?
For the past three years, I’ve spent a lot of time wondering how the upcoming Final Fantasy VII Rebirth would handle that challenge. If it was too faithful a remake, it risked making its predecessor’s powerful ending feel meaningless. But if it strayed too far from the original, it would be skipping out on bringing some of its most memorable moments to life. I’ve been excited — and perhaps a little nervous — to see where that unknown journey was heading.
After a hands-on demo of Final Fantasy VII Rebirth, I finally have some answers. Well, sort of. My preview highlighted how both combat and exploration have evolved while showing me new playable characters and locations like Junon for the first time. Even after one hour of playtime, though, its approach to story remains a bewildering mystery … and that’s exactly what I was hoping for.
The first piece of my demo takes place in a flashback. A young Cloud, Tifa, and Sephiroth find themselves in Mt. Nibel, climbing through a dark cave. While there’s a little dialogue, this chunk mostly served as a reintroduction to Final Fantasy VII Remake’s excellent combat system. The fundamentals remain the same, as players can attack in real-time and slow the action to a near standstill to navigate menus. What’s new, though, is a greater emphasis on team attacks.
Expanding on Episode Intermission’s combos, Rebirth introduces Synergy Skills, a new combat layer that emphasizes party team-ups. When holding down the block button, I can press a face button to perform a duo attack with my party members. Even more devastating Synergy moves act as two-character limit breaks that can really turn the tide of battle. A climactic boss against a hulking monster would end with Cloud and Sephiroth pulling off a dazzling Synergy attack with more sword slashes than I can count.
And yes, that means Sephiroth is a playable character this time.
It seems like Rebirth’s priority is making sure players get to spend more time with its expanding cast of characters, deepening their backstories. It’ll have a lot to juggle, too. A present-day section of my demo had me traveling with Cloud, Barret, Tifa, Aerith, and Red XIII at once. All five characters appeared on screen at all times, though I could only set three up as my battle squad while the other two simply watched battles from the sidelines (I’m not entirely clear if that’s how it’ll work in the final game). That’s a major change from Remake, which featured predetermined party compositions from chapter to chapter.
While the first demo focused on combat, the second was entirely focused on exploration. Here, the team finds themselves in a small open-world area outside of Junon. Before walking into the fishing town, I have some time to wander around on a Chocobo and do a few open-world-style activities. Scattered combat trials would have me trying to beat a pack of enemies within a time limit while completing a checklist of tasks in battle. I could follow Chocobo chicks to discover fast travel markers and get plumes that could be traded in to customize my bird’s armor. I could even find a wealth of materials, which I could use to craft items and in turn complete micro-objectives for a bit of experience.
It’s not a full open-world pivot. The area I explored was probably comparable to some of Final Fantasy XVI’s wide fields, but it already feels like there’s significantly more to do and see in those spaces. That should come as great news to those who took issue with Remake’s corridor-like level design. Just as the original Final Fantasy VII opens up once players leave Midgar, so too does Rebirth. That’s great news considering that iconic areas like the Golden Saucer are making a return here.
While all of those changes are exciting, I wouldn’t call them surprising. Rebirth looks and plays like its predecessor with some new touches that align with a lot of its modern peers. What I was hungrier to see is just how much the sequel would be willing to get weird, adapting some of the oddest parts of the eclectic original. And the end of my demo would assure me that Square Enix isn’t holding back.
Upon entering a small town south of Junon, a local would immediately beg for my team’s help. She’d lead us to a lake where we’d find Yuffie in a boat, being hunted by Bottomswell. It’s a boss fight from the original game but naturally recontextualized to act as a new character introduction. All hope seems lost for Yuffie until Rebirth finally gives me the kind of bizarre moment I craved: A dolphin pops out of the water to lend a helping fin. It’s a hilariously left-field moment that confidently preserves a piece of the original game.
My battle with Bottomswell is as thrilling as any fight in Remake, with my party peppering it with spells and long-range attacks while dodging watery whirlpools. When I land the last strike, I transition into a ridiculously enjoyable cutscene where my dolphin pal helps Cloud finish the massive water snake off. It all ends with a picaresque parting shot as Cloud poses with the dolphin, rainbow overhead.
It’s that moment that sells me on Final Fantasy VII Rebirth more than anything else I played. Sure, it’s always nice to revisit Remake’s ingenious combat system, and the extra duo system brings even more personality and party interaction to it. The semi-open-world pivot is a nice touch too that I’m sure will give me a lot of good reasons to marvel at Square Enix’s meticulous world design. But what I love about Remake is its entirely unpredictable nature. The way it takes ideas from the original, brings them to new extremes, or subverts them, is what makes that experience so special. Rebirth’s retooled dolphin sequence has me confident that it has the same wild energy in abundance.
At Final Fantasy VII Remake’s conclusion, a title card teased its sequel by calling it an “unknown journey.” I can already see why after a bit of playtime. I still feel like I haven’t even seen 1% of what Rebirth will have to offer — even I was shocked watching its recent State of Play trailer despite having actually played it by then. I’m ready to grab that dolphin fin and let it take me as far out into the ocean as it can go.
Final Fantasy VII Rebirth launches on February 29 for PS5.