The image of Sephiroth striding through the flames of Nibelheim has been burned into my mind since I was seven, huddled under a blanket in awe of the PlayStation classic.
It’s a moment that’s forever tied to my memories of Final Fantasy 7, and seeing the horrific scene reimagined even darker and more terrifying gave me chills even 27 years later. Sephiroth’s Nibelheim flashback serves as the first chapter of Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth and it was my introduction to a five-hour hands-on demo that left me chomping at the bit for the full experience.
Rebirth feels like everything the original game wanted to be, the true vision of Final Fantasy 7 delivered with modern technology and design. While the opening is staggering in its updated presentation, that nail-biting sequence gives way to a staggeringly vast world filled with personality, rich storytelling, and an overwhelming amount of activities. This is the first true open world Final Fantasy game, and by all indications, the team behind Rebirth has taken the right lessons from the greats of the genre, like The Witcher 3 and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, while pushing it even further.
More Than A Reimagining
Rebirth seemingly follows the same flow of events from the original Final Fantasy 7 as the party arrives in the quiet town of Kalm. This is where they launch into the Nibelheim flashback, now updated with lavish new details. There’s a real sense of camaraderie that builds between Cloud and Sephiroth, which makes it even more gut-wrenching when Sephiroth loses his mind and goes on a rampage through the town. That iconic scene where he sets Nibelheim on fire is utterly harrowing in Rebirth, practically feeling like a scene ripped from a horror game.
It sets a strong tone for the story, playing into the far more ambitious scope of this sequel. That scope hits full force when the flashback ends and you make your way onto the streets of Kalm, a charming city that’s seen an astounding upgrade.
If you played the original Final Fantasy 7, you know Kalm is nothing more than a small location you likely won’t spend more than thirty minutes visiting. That’s not the case in Rebirth, which gives Kalm a stunning upgrade that makes it feel like a vital piece of the world. It’s a massive city decked out in a gorgeous Venetian style. Crowds gather around its market, a massive clocktower dominates the skyline, and scores of couples crowd around tables at quaint cafes. More than anything else in my demo, I found myself utterly obsessed with how charming Kalm felt; how much I wanted to explore every nook and cranny, talk to every NPC, and undertake every side quest.
“We wanted to depict Kalm as this town that depends on Mako to keep running, and it was also the first town that we had designed,” director Naoki Hamaguchi tells Inverse. “There were several revisions. I would say like two to three times we had to completely reconstruct Kalm so we could get it to looking how it does now.”
As Cloud wanders the streets of Kalm he can run into each party member, having quick little conversations and interactions. For example, running into Barret at the bar yields a convo where the two talk about having a drink together when everything is over. Choices Cloud makes in conversation can alter his affinity with each party member, which in turn alters how the story plays out. While the demo I experienced was only a brief intro to this system, affinity will play into the Golden Saucer date on top of other story moments, which Square Enix confirmed to Game Informer in a December preview.
Hitting the Right Notes
While I could have wandered Kalm for hours, story events demanded my party leave the city, which opened up a vast open world area called the Grasslands. Here, my primary objective was to go to the Chocobo Ranch and get a bird to ride, but there were suddenly dozens of distractions to find along the way.
It’s clear that Rebirth has taken inspirations like The Witcher 3 to heart, integrating much of its side content into the main story and providing legitimate reasons to engage with it, outside of just filling a checklist.
After arriving at the Chocobo Ranch, you run into Chadley, a returning character from Remake and a vital piece of how the open world works. By helping Chadley in his “research,” you activate towers that unveil parts of the map and highlight side content. (Yes, just like in Breath of the Wild.)
I simply didn’t have enough time to see and do everything in the Grasslands, but to start,I headed back to Kalm and took a few sidequests from citizens, fleshing out the story of the city and its people. One of these quests had me helping a photographer snap pics of photo opps in the surrounding countryside, while another had me helping Kalm’s mayor track down a mysterious mercenary, who turned out to be another returning character from Remake and opened up a whole other quest.
At one point, I also stumbled upon a Mog House, which launched me into a minigame where I chased adorable Moogles around. Other activities on the map have you fighting unique enemies with specific conditions to meet for each battle, hunting down legendary artifacts, playing opponents in a card game called Queen’s Blood, and stumbling on Lifestream fountains.
All of these activities reward you in some way, tying into the major mechanics of the game. There’s, of course, the returning leveling systems and Materia from Remake, but everything you do now contributes to a “Party Level.” Increasing this level gives you points you can spend on “Folios,” an upgrade system incredibly reminiscent of the Sphere Grid from FFX or License Board from FFXII.
Nodes on the Folio let you unlock new Synergy Abilities for your team, or upgrades to existing abilities. Past that, some side content yields materials for a new crafting system, letting you restock healing items outside of towns or create new equipment. All of these are rewards I saw in only five hours of playtime, and the handful of sidequests I found all provided meaningful narrative context that helped flesh out Kalm and the people that live there. This made each quest feel meaningful and rewarding, something essential for an open world game focused on exploration.
Looking to the Future
Vitally, none of the side content in Rebirth feels like a requirement. I could have simply pursued the main story and taken on the massive Midgardsormr boss if I wanted. But I could also spend hours upon hours wandering the Grasslands if I chose.
What Rebirth most importantly gets right is in making its world feel alive, and it’s interesting to look at this game in comparison to the series’ last open world attempt: Final Fantasy XV.
While XV has its strengths, so much of its world felt like empty space; land you had to get across to get to the next objective. Rebirth doesn’t feel like that at all. There are activities tucked around every corner, unique fights to find, resources to collect, and even surprises like the Mog House or Chocobo Chicks that lead you to a new fast travel point.
It feels like Square Enix took all the right lessons from its inspirations for Rebirth, creating a dynamic world filled with interesting sights and activities. Between the scope of the world and its impressive recreation of the original game’s story, Rebirth feels like a staggering improvement from Remake. I’m hopeful it won’t just be a step forward for Final Fantasy, but open world games at large.