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Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth review: a true classic, transformed and (very) expanded

Got a few thousand hours to kill?

Published: 27 Feb 2024

They must feel like a bomb defusal squad down at Square Enix HQ, working on these remakes. Cut the wrong connection back to an entire generation of gamers’ precious childhood memories and bang - an explosion of furious tweets and one-star user reviews. Formative years sullied, hearts broken, shaking fists raised in the air. Nervy work.

PS1’s classic JRPG Final Fantasy VII really did mean that much to people in 1997. The turn-based combat was nothing new - gamers had been politely waiting their turn to leather someone in the head with a sword for six prior instalments. But what did feel new was the scale and bombast of its storytelling. Here was a game that didn’t pull its punches narratively, where major characters died - like, dead dead - and where every location seemed to have been thought about by very smart people for a long time. Consequently, Cloud Strife and his party of renegade warriors went down in gaming folklore as legends.

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But before we get too comfortable back in 1997 and start calling people ‘our kid’ let’s come back to the present: Rebirth is the second of a planned trilogy of Final Fantasy VII remakes by Square Enix, loosely retelling the original story via totally overhauled gameplay and visuals that will make you drop to your knees and weep before your OLED telly.

The first part, 2020’s Remake, set a high bar. It did have the advantage of going first of course, which meant there was a giddy thrill in simply seeing Cloud, Tifa, Barret and co in modern triple-A finery. But it didn’t rely on flashy graphics - the combat, now real-time instead of turn-based, was snappy and spectacular, and despite taking 50 hours to tell about 10 hours’ worth of the original game’s events, it motored along with plenty of environmental variation and a steady stream of new gameplay elements. One minute you were in a motorbike chase. The next, picking flowers with your crush.

Which finally brings us to Rebirth, an exceptionally difficult game to appraise. Because although it’s still just as gorgeous to behold, and the combat’s every bit as snappy and spectacular as it was in the last game, this time it doesn’t feel quite so special.

And that’s probably because it’s so enormous. It makes Remake feel like a quaint little demo by comparison. This isn’t quite an open world game, but each hub you visit feels big enough to qualify as its own quasi-open world. They vary nicely between prairies, sprawling cities, tundras and ruined urban shells, all universally gorgeous. And they’re packed with side quests. If you want sheer value for money, that’s a good thing.

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But if we may direct your attention back a few paragraphs, let’s remember that the PS1 original was such a seismic event because of the way it told its story. And even though finding faults in a game this polished and vast feels like second-guessing an elderly relative’s birthday present to you, it must be said that storytelling is not Rebirth’s forte.

It’s inevitable really. You split one epic game into three even epic-er ones, and there’s going to be an element of watering down. Rebirth certainly doesn’t run out of premise, either - the world’s more than well realised enough to spend many hours in. The interactions between your party are a continuous delight, bolstered by some of the most endearing and memorable voice acting you’ll hear in games and top notch animation work. Similarly to Square’s modern day JRPGs, Final Fantasy XV and XVI, a lot of the enjoyment comes from the sense of living out an adventure in real-time with your close friends, relishing the minutiae of surviving in hostile lands.

No, what it runs short of is plot.There’s so much companionly bonhomie between your party, but fewer moments of real narrative impact in between all the trekking, the Chocobo-riding, the myriad minigames and the random encounters.

It’s important to pull the reins here and say that none of this should stop you playing Rebirth. It’s a towering achievement, particularly when you look around the gaming landscape and realise how few blockbuster titles make it out of the doors in anything close to this state. It has a nearly impossible task of completely overhauling everything that made the original game feel special without losing the feel, the intangible atmosphere, of it, and it somehow it succeeds in it anyway.

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If you can make peace with the fact that the plot’s spread wafer-thin across a vast landscape of hub worlds and secondary activities, you’re richly rewarded with a very modern JRPG that can be silly or serious, and hold your attention for so long that you start to dream about it. It doesn’t tell its story the way it did in ‘97 though, so if you were expecting to immerse yourself into a warm nostalgic bath of school days, Oasis radio hits and Titanic hype, you’ll instead have to be content just to Be Here Now.

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