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Final Fantasy VII Rebirth Review

Standing on the edge of Midgar's expressway at the end of Final Fantasy VII Remake, the seemingly infinite possibilities of what could come next left me overwhelmed with a yearning I hadn't really felt from a game before – there was a whole world full of iconic moments awaiting modern revisions ahead, as well as whatever twists this now clearly diverging path might bring to them. In several ways, Final Fantasy VII Rebirth is my wildest imagination made manifest, simultaneously another stunning reconstruction of my childhood memories and an interesting (if sometimes a little messy) new interpretation of a story I've cherished since 1997.

Remake’s already impeccable blend of action and turn-based RPG combat has been made fresh again with new mechanics and party members, and revamping the way the original overworld worked by splitting it into sprawling open regions full of enjoyable optional activities enriches places I thought I knew so well. There's a magic to doing all this with characters I love so much too, as their personal stories and pivotal moments have a new grandeur to them. However, Rebirth’s sweeping ambition to create a new timeline for Final Fantasy VII bounces between being absolutely sublime and too convoluted for its own good. That’s left me conflicted about parts of the execution of that new direction – but after spending more than 80 hours to finish the main story and a decent chunk of side content, there's no denying that Rebirth is an amazing journey despite that, and one I'll remember fondly as I eagerly anticipate the third act of this rebuilt Final Fantasy VII.

What We Said About Final Fantasy VII Remake

The expectations around Final Fantasy VII Remake are sky high, and it mostly manages to deliver. Its combat is top notch, its enemy variety kept me constantly entertained, and seeing this snippet of story fleshed out with real emotional arcs and the previously hidden humanity behind Midgar filled me with pure joy. The boring RPG filler and Kingdom Hearts-esque convolution that was inserted in between did stop my ear-to-ear grin from being constant, but never long enough to kill the mood completely. That leaves this remake as one that still delivered on letting me relive (part of) a classic in stupendous fashion, while also standing as a great RPG all its own. - Tom Marks, April 6, 2020

Score: 8​

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A major part of what makes that journey special is its impressive scale. As soon as I set foot onto the Grasslands, the first of six regions that make up Rebirth, a sense of awe washed over me. Looking out over the far-reaching horizon or seeing a backdrop of vast and distant mountain ranges, I was stunned by how gorgeously the previously low-poly world of Final Fantasy VII had been reimagined. An early cutscene shows Aerith taking in the beauty of a natural world she was never able to see before, only to have Red XIII remind her that it's still dying from the inside out. In doing so, the story reinforces the ongoing theme of environmental preservation from the outset, and instills that this is a planet worth fighting for. That's a feeling that consistently surfaced as I went from region to region, connecting with the people of each one and helping with their struggles through both the main story and a huge amount of sidequests.

Rebirth manages to transcend its well-worn open world design.

However, that wonder also came with some intimidation as I pulled up the world map, realizing how massive Rebirth was going to be – and that it has embraced many modern open-world design conventions. The nerdy researcher boy Chadley returns in a big way, acting as your liaison for most of the optional activities under the guise of furthering his scientific research, which includes activating towers spread throughout each region to mark tasks on your map. As familiar as that task is, Rebirth manages to transcend the negative connotations of this well-worn trope – the more I began to peel back the layers of all the activities that fill these zones, the more engrossed I got in clearing every icon I could from the map. That context made it more than just a checklist of chores.

There's also something powerful in simply exploring each corner of these regions just to see how they've clung onto life in spite of the destructive effect of the relentless reliance on Mako energy. Scaling a cliff in Junon on my way to a side objective comes with the treat of a breathtaking but tainted view, such as the sunset splashing the desolate region with a cozy orange tint while the city's massive cannon looms in the background. You can see the contrast of Costa Del Sol's vibrant beachside next to the barren wasteland of Corel – a consequence of the iconic Gold Saucer's energy demand. Exploration in Rebirth evokes a similar feeling to one I had with Xenoblade Chronicles 3, where the sheer scope and spectacle of their respective worlds drew me into uncovering all they had to offer. Wondrous sights like these are their own little rewards.

Finding wondrous sights are their own little rewards.

Later areas in Rebirth change up how you move around them with unique abilities for your rideable chocobo. Bouncing off launchpad mushrooms to get around Gongaga's labyrinthine jungle and chaining boost pads to stay airborne in Cosmo Canyon started out cute, but eventually became more tedious than necessary. Rebirth also loves to make you climb cliffsides or swing across gaps with a grappling hook, Uncharted-style, which don't feel as fluid as they ought to be, though the sense of adventure these actions provide at least makes them tolerable.

Whether you’re tracking down Lifesprings to learn more about the region, fighting uniquely tough enemies in the wild while fulfilling specific battle conditions, or chasing down Protorelics for bespoke side stories, everything you do feeds into one gameplay system or another. For example, Lifesprings can unveil Divine Intel locations which can make the battles to unlock new Summons easier, or they can reveal the objective of an ongoing sidequest that didn't seem connected at first blush. Not all of the optional tasks are terribly exciting (like digging up treasure with your chocobo or doing silly timing-based inputs to activate Summon shrines) but the rewards are a decent enough incentive to at least prevent them from feeling like outright filler.

Sidequests pop up at every major town's Community Noticeboard, and they paint a more complete picture of Rebirth's vision for its reimagined open world. A certain party member is typically tied to each individual sidequest, so you'll get to see a side of them you wouldn't be able to otherwise, and also increase their Bond level in the process (a new feature that’s mainly relevant in a later part of the story I won’t get into here). These are more than mere fetch quests, instead featuring multiple objectives that take you across regions and encourage exploration, and they often tell their own compelling little stories or uplift the human element of Final Fantasy VII. Some of the later sidequests even provide context that's almost essential in order to fully understand the world and a few supporting characters as well.

Regardless of which tasks you take on, you'll be rewarded with XP for your Party Level, a separate progression system that advances your access to Folios. You can think of Folios as a system like
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’s Sphere Grid, where you spend a pool of skill points to unlock new perks and abilities for each character. The biggest addition within Folios are Synergy Abilities, powerful partner attacks between specific characters that lay on heavy damage and can grant bonuses like extending stagger windows, filling the Limit Break bar, or temporarily negating all MP costs. You'll also access Synergy Skills that can be used on the fly to make combat more flexible, such as having Cloud launch Tifa into the air to get into melee range of flying enemies, or letting Barret soak up incoming damage for Aerith. Synergies are yet another tool in a bag full of tricks that complements the already intricate combat from Remake – and instead of bloating what's already quite a busy system, they work to fill gaps and reward you for expending ATB bars, making the combat loop feel more complete.

Strong enemies won't go down through simple button mashing.

The returning Pressure and Stagger systems once again push you toward understanding combat on a deeper level, since bosses and strong enemies won't go down through simple button mashing. Like in Remake, using the Assess ability reveals how you can exploit enemy vulnerabilities outside of their elemental weaknesses (if they even have any). That makes both the tactical foresight to line up an offensive push at just the right time and the skill necessary to execute it imperative. When it all comes together and you're firing off Limit Breaks, chunky weapon skills, and cinematic Synergy Abilities against a staggered formidable foe, it's undeniably satisfying – not just because of the weight behind each hit, but also in the gratification of having orchestrated it all under the pressure of aggressive and sometimes unforgiving enemies.

As was the case in Remake, each character has a distinct fighting style, with Cloud, Tifa, Barret, and Aerith functioning just as they did before. But with new enemies and additional mechanics layered on, Rebirth pushes you to bring out the best in your party members. Yuffie plays like she did in Remake’s Intergrade DLC and can be an absolute menace by covering all elements with Ninjutsu, cloning herself to multiply the impact of every action, and having the best mobility of anyone in the party. Now with a full party around her and a full game to build on her skillset, she stands out as the most dynamic of the bunch. The finally playable Red XIII brings something different to the table by turning defense into offense with his Vengeance stance, yet it's his fast combos and absolutely destructive Stardust Ray that make short work of enemies. No matter your party composition, switching between them on the fly while setting the others up to play their parts offers a constant variety in both the moment-to-moment action and the satisfaction of playing the field general.

The depth of how all of these combat systems interconnect can be overwhelming, but it’s incredibly rewarding when you start to unravel their intricacies and put them together in battle. Much of that comes from the returning Materia system, which lets you customize each party member's build to fill certain roles with magic spells, stat boosts, and passive skills. While it's largely the same as before, it's no worse for wear because of just how smart it is, providing a level of flexibility that has a dramatic effect on how everyone functions. Along with Synergies unlocked in Folios, the multitude of weapon skills earned throughout the journey, and powerful Summons that can turn the tide of any fight, Rebirth's combat offers an embarrassment of riches without making you too overpowered when it really counts.

Important encounters can get extremely challenging even with all the tools you have – bosses push you to really work for your victory with how much they throw at you, and that level of effort is crucial for making combat so satisfying. You're expected to juggle their onslaught while trying to build ATB and exploit their specific vulnerabilities. However, at times, it did feel as though the way some of these tougher enemies were designed betrayed the principles of the combat system itself, as if there's a dissonance between how your party functions and what the enemy is capable of doing. Certain foes zip around the battlefield at high speeds that even the lock-on system has trouble tracking in a way that doesn’t feel intentional, and getting constantly knocked back or caught in multi-hit combos is an occasional annoyance. It's obnoxious at best and actively frustrating at worst when an attack like this interrupts a spell and your ATB bar has already been burned, adding insult to injury. Thankfully, these exasperating moments don't overshadow the heights Rebirth reaches – with enough practice, preparation, and wits, even the hardest battles are a surmountable thrill to conquer.

The Heart of the Cards

Queen's Blood is the new card game introduced in Final Fantasy VII Rebirth, and it's an outstanding addition that had me sinking hours into defeating some of the toughest card-slinging opponents throughout the world. What starts as a grid-based game of territory control evolves into a cutthroat tactical exercise where you’ll need to manage power level multipliers, attack cards, and unique conditions to buff your cards or debuff your opponent. Not only is it genius in its rules and varied card functions, but there's an entire side story that builds up as you progress in the main game. It explores the origins of Queen's Blood itself and goes in some wild and unpredictable directions on top of being a ton of fun to play.

While the larger story Rebirth tells is a heart wrenching and compelling one, it does take a while for it to initially come into focus. After opening with the hard-hitting flashback of the tragedy at Cloud and Tifa's hometown of Nibelheim, you'll spend a lot of time getting acquainted with the flow of the open regions as you follow a chain of events that’s familiar from the 1997 original. But by frontloading a lot of those diversions, it can lose the thread of what Cloud and the gang were even supposed to be doing in the first place. From Junon to Costa del Sol, you'll be spending more time in minigames than anything else, and that's all before getting to the Gold Saucer, which is the capital of minigames. Don't get me wrong, many of these activities are a joy in their own right, and a few of them make for memorable moments of levity. But a little bit of restraint could have helped keep the focus on the parts I cared about most.

It seems like nitpicking, but that’s especially true with things such as slow-paced crate-moving puzzles, stealth sections to unlock a region's chocobo, or the box-throwing microgames with Cait Sith in later chapters. That all said, these are ultimately minor inconveniences in what is largely a fantastic revision of Final Fantasy VII’s story. If anything, the more robust minigames capture just how absolutely goofy the PS1 classic always was, livening up the adventure while still staying true to its identity.

Rebirth manages to strike that delicate balance well, which is impressive given there was always a darkness and sorrow that permeated Final Fantasy VII, with the planet's very existence at risk, Shinra's destructive nature, and Sephiroth's calamitous ambitions looming. Cloud himself is a broken man, an unreliable narrator, and a complicated protagonist – and in the highest fidelity of modern tech, his slight but telling mannerisms speak as loud as anything he said in the original script. Nearly every party member has their moment to shine in this arc of Final Fantasy VII, and through impeccable cinematic stylings and top-tier voice performances, the cast's teetering between hope and despair is on full display. Barret's backstory was already unforgettable, but between the raw, emotional performance of voice actor John Eric Bentley and the graphical prowess of today's hardware, there's a newfound authenticity to the struggles he faces and painful resolutions that await him. Those modern qualities, along with a reimagined script, also give additional depth to Red XIII to round him out as a more complete character.

Nearly every party member has a moment to shine.

All the while, Aerith becomes an emotional leader and the relationship between her and Tifa grows stronger and more believable as they confide in each other and bear the brunt of Cloud's baggage. Rebirth is often cheesy in its writing and revels in its melodrama, but that's part of its charm. Within the cloying displays of friendship and theatrical pleas to protect the environment are undeniably genuine messages about how we carry ourselves in our own lives. That tone is what lets this particular brand of storytelling strike a chord as effectively as it does, elevating Rebirth above many of its contemporaries.

The concept of rebuilding Final Fantasy VII’s story for a new generation came with the theme of defying your supposed fate, which was made explicit toward the end of Remake with the convergence of alternate timelines affecting each other. It took me a while to come around on this idea, and although the mechanisms that turn the wheels of fate in Rebirth are as obtuse as they've ever been, it's a direction I've wanted to embrace. But while this new-ish story has the potential to be equally as powerful as the original, it pains me to say that Rebirth fumbles the execution. Avoiding any spoilers, the events of its conclusion and the ensuing aftermath are portrayed in a way that is both convoluted and undefined, robbing it of its impact. It's a case of trying to do too much without the connective tissue to bring it all together. Cryptic messages and nuanced meanings can be well and good, but sometimes stories also have to speak plainly about what is actually happening, and Rebirth does not when it needs to most.

Even with the baffling delivery of its conclusion, some of the new scenes surrounding that finale do offer sobering messages about grief, letting go, and the acceptance of life's inevitable end – and sometimes that also means finding something worth fighting for. These quiet moments encourage a different kind of reflection that the original wasn't able to touch on. How we make sense of our lives and our place in a world full of tragedy is a complicated and messy endeavor that seems full of contradictions, and Rebirth makes that fittingly clear. So even though the new path these remakes are trying to forge is both fascinating and flawed, Final Fantasy VII’s story still manages to hold a poignant mirror up to our own world, 27 years later.

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