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Friday, March 15, 2024

Final Fantasy VII Rebirth

The second part of the Final Fantasy VII remake trilogy finally gets the party out of Midgar and continues the remixed plot right where the last game's left off, working in many new open world elements, character interactions and minigames along the way.  But does it prove a worthy continuation of Remake, or does Rebirth just give more weight to the criticism that it's an overbloated and unnecessary reimagining of a classic?

There was much buzz about the Final Fantasy VII remake, in no small part because Square had been not-so-subtly teasing it since the Playstation 3 era, remaking the intro from scratch as part of a trailer.  It finally debuted in 2020, and while well-received overall, also attracted a fair amount of criticism for changing up the story in some rather bizarre ways (something upper management insisted upon against director Tetsuya Nomura's wishes), and for feeling more than a bit padded.  I can't personally disagree -  the dungeons did feel overly long at times and the sidequests just weren't too interesting for the most part.  Still, it had enough new twists to hold my interest and it didn't stretch out into a 60+ hour slog just for the sake of it, so I had fun playing it and it didn't wear out its welcome.

Rebirth continues right where the last game picked up, but seems to take some criticisms of the original to heart.  One thing you notice right away is that the game world is much more open; in fact, once the intro (the familiar Nibelheim flashback) plays out it dumps a whole bunch of quests on you all at once, prompting you to venture around the grasslands near Kalm in order to analyze rare enemies, acquire a piece of armor from some thieves, activate broadcast towers and, of course, battle Chadley's simulated critters to unlock summons and other goodies.  Various NPCs also give quests of their own, so within the first few hours you've already got 40 or so side-tasks available.  And there's only more to come once you reach other areas; basically, almost every time you'd hit a stretch of empty world map in the original you're now given a bunch of optional objectives to complete.  They are all fun though and almost never devolve into tedious item-farming, so that's a definite plus.

Some new mechanics quickly show themselves too.  Right away you're given the Item Transmuter and introduced to the game's crafting system (because every game nowadays needs one of those).  Basically you find various items on the field (or in shops) that are useless on their own, but can be crafted into useful things like Potions, Phoenix Downs and Ethers, as well as more powerful versions of each that affect the entire party.  As you craft new things and complete sidequests you'll gradually upgrade the Transmuter, earning new recipes that can prove quite handy in other ways - creating new accessories that can't be bought in stores or upgrading armlets, with upgraded versions having slightly better stats than the standard ones.

Party Level also crops up right away, and it's tied to each character now having a skill tree, earning more points by - you guessed it - completing sidequests and purchasing skill books.  These do have a number of useful purposes, with a prominent one being that you can now launch elemental attacks without requiring MP; just spending an AP bar.  Others include new synergy moves (more on those in a second) and just straight stat buffs, giving a character more HP, damage or making their unique skills more effective.

Synergy is another new addition, and it comes in two forms - Skills and Abilities.  Skills serve as new attacks and are activated by holding down R1 to block and then pressing one of the four face buttons, which causes your current character and a second character in the active party to perform a flashy team-up move.  They tend to do quite a bit of damage and also quickly build up AP, so they're very handy in the more hectic battles where enemies love to hound you constantly.  Performing them also builds up bars, which can then be spent to activate Synergy Abilities - powerful cinematic attacks that also grant temporary buffs like unlimited MP or extended stagger time.  In both cases, it's a good idea to mix them up - using the same ones repeatedly will also cause them to take longer and longer to recharge. 

Rebirth of course follows the central part of Final Fantasy VII's story where much of the playable cast joins up, so they've added several new playable character and given each their own mechanics.  Yuffie returns from the Intergrade DLC chapter of Remake and plays largely the same as she did there, able to attack from melee range as well as throw out her shuriken and bombard the enemy with ranged attacks while it remains separated from her (doing damage itself as it spins in place and damages nearby enemies).  Red XIII is made fully playable, able to block attacks to fill his Vengeance meter and enter Vengeance Mode once it's at least partly filled, boosting his damage and dodge speed and getting a secondary attack in Siphon Fang, a move which absorbs HP.  Cait Sith is perhaps the strangest character of all, effectively being three characters in one - the Cat can fight solo, but much of his effectiveness stems from his summoned Moogle, which can fight on its own or pair up with the Cat in "Mounted Mode" to greatly expand their collective moveset.  Their special moves (and Limit Breaks) are also dependent on their Luck stat, so bolstering that with some Luck Plus materia will let you get more mileage out of them.  Vincent and Cid appear in the game, but are not playable; presumably they'll follow in Red's footsteps and become full-fledged characters in the third and final entry.

An integral part of Final Fantasy VII's gameplay was of course its minigames, and Rebirth certainly doesn't skimp on bringing that back.  In fact, there's enough minigames here to rival one of the Yakuza games.  From crunches to combat challenges to smashing boxes to herding moogles to a MOBA-like minigame based on Fort Condor (also seen in Intergrade), and that's all before you hit the Gold Saucer, which has plenty more of its own.  3D brawling, shooting targets, and even a Rocket League style minigame with Red playing a high-speed version of Soccer.  For the first time since Final Fantasy IX, we also get a game-spanning substory in the form of Queen's Blood - a collectible card minigame.  It has a similar element of controlling space on the board, but comes down more to strategic placement of your own cards ratings rather than trying to dominate or destroy your opponent's; basically, you place cards down to mark adjacent spaces as your own for future moves, and once both players pass a turn, whoever has the highest score in each of the three lanes gets points for that lane, with whoever has the highest score in total winning the game.  There are a wide variety of different cards and tactics to employ, as well as some rare cards with powerful effects to overcome and use yourself, so there's certainly no shortage of tactics despite being a simple game at a glance; you'll have to get pretty creative if you want to conquer every opponent and collect every card.  Thankfully you don't lose your own cards when you lose a round either, which spare a lot of the tedious reloading saves that came with FFVIII and IX's card games.

One thing I did find a little jarring about Rebirth (and Remake to a degree) is that it plays up the humor element quite a lot compared to the 1997 original.  Nomura isn't in the director's chair this time, but his influence is still felt, with  hammy voiceover, jokey dialog and no shortage of exaggerated silly moments.  One that particularly stands out in my mind is the famous Midgardsormr death scene - a chilling scene we only saw the aftermath of in the original, but here it's an onscreen event - one that's so abupt and over-the-top that it actually made me laugh out loud.  The original FF7 did have its moments of levity, but certainly not to this degree; honestly the Remake series almost feels like a parody of Final Fantasy VII at times rather than an earnest attempt to recapture the original's heavy mood.

Rebirth feels like a logical extension of Remake in almost every respect - addressing some prominent shortcomings of its predecessors, adding a much wider world to explore and keeping the core combat intact while adding in numerous new mechanics and playable characters.  The addition of more (and more varied) sidequests and minigames helps it quite a bit too, staving off the monotony of constant combat and dungeon-crawling that its predecessor frequently fell into.  That said, the fact that they still have to fall back on lame padding quests to fill time in a game that encompasses a much larger part of OG FF7's plot is pretty dopey, and some of the combat challenges and minigames are exercises in sheer frustration more than anything else.  There's confusing decisions made with them at times too - you get a choice for an easy mode if you fail the Moogle minigame more than twice but for the actual near-impossible ones (like the situps minigame) you're on your own?  I also absolutely despise when games lock a single trophy behind completing dozens of side objectives you otherwise wouldn't glance twice at, which - surprise - this one does.  That's bad enough, but making you play the entire game twice (hard mode doesn't unlock until you've finished the game once on a lower difficulty) also just smacks of deliberately wasting your time; so no, it's not a game I ever intend to platinum.  But even with those faults, a lot of dopey humor, more than a bit of padding in the story and some downright obnoxious objectives I enjoyed Rebirth overall.  Maybe not as much as Final Fantasy XVI and definitely not as much as the original FF7, but it does justice to its legacy at least.

Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Released: 2024
Platforms: PlayStation 5
Recommended Version: N/A