I’m not sure if there’s a good way to name the second part of a trilogy of games based on an original title that’s the seventh in a series of games. But this one is called Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth.

Rebirth takes the characters and world reintroduced with Remake and does a better job at scaling it all up. Instead of one single metropolis, Midgar, this time, it’s a world tour. There’s also an expanded roster of playable characters almost doubling Remake’s total, each with a unique playstyle once again.

The expansive new world finally takes advantage of the PS5 hardware. Rebirth feels like a fantasy world and Square Enix has successfully combined exploration in a Final Fantasy title with rich, dense cities and settlements, more like its golden era RPGs. Sure, Final Fantasy XVI gave me world to explore, but there wasn’t much in a lot of it. (Even if it had the narrative excuses for why.)

The Gold Saucer is a multi-story Disneyland with mogs and chocobo characters emblazoned everywhere, theme park rides, travelators, holograms and glossy surfaces. Meanwhile, Cosmo Canyon looks like a tree house that took a hundred years to make, filled with tourists and woo-woo hippies. There is even a hippie circle where you can share your truth. (Funnily enough, there’s an Ayahuasca-style vision sequence in the game, which has nothing to do with Cosmo Canyon – which is a bit of a waste.)

Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth reviewFinal Fantasy 7 Rebirth review

The story of Rebirth follows protagonist Cloud and the rest of his party as they chase antagonist Sephiroth, getting sinister mega-corporation Shinra riled up along the way.

Cloud seems increasingly unhinged as Sephiroth seemingly worms his way into his head. It is a slightly different route to the original game, adding an extra layer on top of the missed memories and his unusual origins. In fact, in the second half of Rebirth, not only does Cloud become increasingly unlikeable, but I start to dislike the rest of the party for not calling him out on his poor decisions and weird behavior. Childhood friend Tifa? You’re an enabler. My unease with the main characters persists through to the end, unfortunately.

The party hops between towns, boarding ships, or finding different breeds of giant rideable birds that can traverse mountains or shallow water. It’s these areas outside of the city hubs where the exploration, the battles and the side quests happen. So many side quests.

Remake had some dull side quests – a lot of fetch quests seemingly there to eke out the playtime. Rebirth suffers from this too – this isn’t quite Witcher-level side quests – and I think it’s exacerbated when you’re playing a game whose story beats you kinda know, as you’re going to feel diverted from them.

As you enter new regions, new points of interest will populate your map. These can range from natural springs to artifact hunts (featuring an iconic Final Fantasy series mainstay) that could include holographic battles, a new tower defense game and a card game that I was more than willing to invest a little too much time into.

There’s also a lot of items to pick-up, reminding anyone of the gathering-and-crafting headaches of many current-gen games, from Baldur’s Gate 3 to Horizon to… most open-world games, to be honest. Fortunately, despite my trepidation, you don’t have to collect everything. The game provided enough items just through my normal exploration to make the items I wanted. Particularly potent accessories and items are usually locked behind an item that only the strongest monster in a certain region drops.

Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth reviewFinal Fantasy 7 Rebirth review

Square Enix

At least the lion’s share of side quests, games and challenges are optional. If you’re not interested in figuring out a route to a rocky outcrop to defeat a monster, then you really don’t have to. You can just make a beeline for the next primary objective and see where the story goes.

Rebirth doesn’t address all the questions you may have about this Remake trilogy. You’ll have to wait for the third part of the story, and I also don’t want to ruin the story for fans who waited decades for this project.

There are occasional flash… sideways, to an alternate timeline where most of the original party died in an accident, but spin-off protagonist, Zack, another SOLDIER like Cloud, is still alive. His death in the original game was a major story beat, alongside another: the death of main party member Aerith. Does she survive Chapter 2? Will this be Final Fantasy 7’s The Empire Strikes Back? I can’t say but there is one particularly satisfying final battle.

Some side quests held my attention. If anything, sometimes I got so distracted that I lost track of the story’s twists and turns. Rebirth benefits from a rich collection of characters both from Remake and the original, helping to add interest to what are sometimes merely item-collecting quests.

More often than not, I was happy to be distracted because the art direction and environment design were just so gorgeous. It all looks bigger and better than Remake, no more two-dimensional wallpaper skies and horizons. From the top of Cosmo Canyon, you can still see the fans of the Cosmo area, there for your flying bird exploration.

During my playthrough, there were some questionable graphic textures, especially in the overworld, but Square Enix launched a patch to correct most of this a day before this review’s embargo. While I’m no pixel peeper or FPS obsessive, before the patch I did find Performance mode (FF7 Rebirth once again offers a high-frame option and a high-res option to play in) a little too blurry. I hope future updates address that. Despite all that, this is often the prettiest PS5 game since Horizon Forbidden West.

Once again, Square Enix has folded in a soundtrack filled with new melodies and even more remixes and reimaginings of the basic MIDI originals from 1997. My pick: the new Cosmo region overworld theme, which screams Beck. A music reference also from 1997.

Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth reviewFinal Fantasy 7 Rebirth review

Square Enix

This game is delightfully stupid in places, intentionally. There’s a sense of humor that gets as ridiculous as any Like a Dragon sidequest. Segways? Yes. Ninja clones of the most annoying character, yes, a catdog riding a giant bird, yes.

The battle system takes what Remake introduced and adds further cooperative attacks and skills. There are synergy skills, instant, no-cost attacks and defensive moves that combine your controlling character with party allies. Then there are synergy abilities (completely different) that build up over a battle, as you use your more typical attacks and spells. These are more like special attacks, often ensuring you can beat tricky enemies. Alongside damage, they’ll offer a buff, like faster attack gauges, unlimited MP or raising the limit levels of characters to even more powerful ultimate moves.

Final Fantasy 7 RebirthFinal Fantasy 7 Rebirth

Square Enix

It seems, at the start, excessive, and I am someone who owns a $150 polygon figurine of Cloud in a dress. The whole system (including pressuring and staggering, the elemental weaknesses, status effects, buffs, debuffs, limit breaks, and an active time battle (ATB) gauge needed to do anything substantive with your players) is a lot.

Even if you’re coming from Remake, as I did, Rebirth’s battle system can overwhelm at the start. While the game introduces these new synergies in simpler two-party battles, it never quite offers a good enough explanation for utilizing it in early battles. As I mentioned in my preview, there’s a new aerial combat system, but aside from Cloud, I have no idea how to launch other characters into the air without tapping into dedicated synergy abilities.

Fortunately, the battle system as a whole, muddy learning curve aside, is fun. And extremely satisfying once you figure out the patterns and behaviors of certain bosses. I’ll admit: I died a few times. But I never felt frustrated by it.

I really enjoyed the battle challenges in Remake, and Rebirth has seemingly just shy of a hundred of them, spread across battle arenas, holodeck fights and rare monsters in the wild. I’m already fascinated with the card game Queen’s Blood. Card games have their own entire side-story, but the best parts are the card ‘puzzles’ where you have to really understand how the more unique cards work to win.

Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth reviewFinal Fantasy 7 Rebirth review

Square Enix

Other highlights include a bunch of reimagined minigames beyond the Queen’s Blood, though. So. Many. Minigames. There’s a new Fort Condor tower defense game, the bike ride battle from Remake, a holographic Super Punch-Out-styled game, a Star Fox-style shoot-em-up – in fact Super Nintendo seems to have heavily inspired the game selection at Rebirth’s Gold Saucer amusement park. There’s a lot to do, and while there are certainly repetitive elements, it feels like the game is providing them for completionists, not everyone else.

I completed all the side quests in two areas, playing the game in a new dynamic difficulty setting, where enemies won’t scale down their levels as you play, but they will scale up, meaning you’re not going to steamroll the game if you’ve grinded for a few levels before. Of course, there’s standard difficulty too. It will definitely be a challenging playthrough if you haven’t played Remake. And don’t worry if you haven’t the original 1997 game: Rebirth ensures die-hard fans and newcomers can follow along, with many easter eggs for the former if they pay attention.

Rebirth is the difficult middle chapter. Remake on the PS4 showed it was possible to imagine a PlayStation game for the modern era, with deeper combat, and beautiful graphics, but perhaps not quite the heft to create FF7, the world. That’s what Rebirth seems to achieve. Looking back on Remake now, entirely set in the city of Midgar, it seems claustrophobic by comparison.

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