Final Fantasy VII Rebirth review: this is becoming one of the greatest RPG series ever made

From the moment Final Fantasy VII Remake appeared in 2020, it’s been clear that this three-part reworking of the pivotal 1997 Japanese RPG wasn’t interested in playing things straight. Sections of the old game were expanded beyond all recognition and key points in the storyline altered. Characters who had barely registered in the original were pushed to centre stage, and the destinies of some changed completely.

The game even introduced new enemies, the ghostly Whispers, that actively battled to protect the original timeline and make sure its heroes and villains met their fates. And now the second part, dubbed Final Fantasy VII Rebirth, arrives hell-bent on disrupting things further. At times, it feels like everything is up for grabs.

Rebirth follows on directly from Remake, with hero Cloud Strife and his friends escaping the vast megacity of Midgar in the aftermath of a catastrophe. They’re now hot on the trail of the crazed super-soldier, Sephiroth, and pursued by the troops of the evil Shinra corporation. From there the plot follows most of the same beats as the original, but with unsettling changes that leave you questioning back stories and identities, or new sections that transform events or locations.

So, what was once a tiny village becomes a bustling town, or a cargo ship a cruise ship on its way to a sun-soaked paradise. The old wilderness areas that linked locations together become lavish, open-world settings packed with challenges, side-quests and secrets to discover. The world of Final Fantasy VII now lives and breathes on an epic scale, but it’s not afraid to pull the rug out from under you. There’s a whole plotline I’m forbidden to discuss, but that’s so potentially confusing I wouldn’t even want to try.

You might describe some of the new stuff as padding. The new open-world areas feature the kind of repetitive tasks – activating towers, searching for ancient artifacts – that you’ve seen before in a dozen Assassin’s Creed or Far Cry installments. There are materials to collect and craft into useful potions and accessories, while cute baby Chocobos – the series’ signature avian mounts – will pull you towards Chocobo Stops in urgent need of restoration.

A showdown in the new, improved Gold Saucer (Square-Enix LTD)
A showdown in the new, improved Gold Saucer (Square-Enix LTD)

You’ll want to help them out, as the fleet-footed yellow birds are essential for getting around the game’s vast landscapes, or speeding up its steepest mountain paths. Beyond that, there’s a new virtual card game to master, with every town or backwater hamlet packed with players eager to challenge Cloud to a match of Queen’s Blood.

But here’s the thing: it only rarely feels like padding. Most of the side-missions and quests are optional, but they give you opportunities to level up your party faster, and there’s usually some quirk or unusual character to keep things from ever getting stale. There’s even comedy in some of the more bizarre challenges, or in the way you’ll keep meeting up with a lazy would-be mercenary or keep tackling the same gang of hapless thugs. You’ll almost feel sorry for these dim-witted bozos as you disrupt their plans for the umpteenth time.

Most of all, this is a world that’s a pleasure to explore, partly because there’s often a spectacular view just around the next corner, and partly because Cloud and chums are more mobile than they’ve ever been. Our heroes are now able to climb up certain chunks of scenery, helpfully painted yellow, or vault up and over smaller obstacles. There’s even a grappling hook to help them swing through the air with a newfound agility.

From kicking off to kicking back

Yuffie and Cait Sith spring into action (Square-Enix LTD)
Yuffie and Cait Sith spring into action (Square-Enix LTD)

Of course, there’s a lot of fighting, which makes full use of Remake’s more action-oriented Active system, smashing and slashing away at monsters and Shinra goons in real-time, or in the easier-going Classic system, where the AI handles the basic attacks, allowing players to focus on activating their team’s distinct abilities, spells and special moves.

Either way, there are fun new twists like the Synergy combos, where two heroes combine their powers in one awesome, super attack. There’s a whole new upgrade system to level these up and add to the pool of combat options. Meanwhile, Rebirth still goes big on Final Fantasy’s classic summoning moves, where vast deities and demons can be called to your aid, where they’ll fight alongside you before disappearing with a final massive damage flourish. When you’re getting battered by a screen-filling giant serpent or skyscraper-sized battle droid, you can really use the help.

Yet it’s the quieter stuff beyond the battles that makes Rebirth really special. In many ways it’s the loosest and most open Final Fantasy game in years. Sure, the world might be under threat and a magically-enhanced environmental disaster on the way, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t time to kick back and have fun with your besties.

Rebirth is never afraid to take a break in a beach resort to go nuts on a bunch of bizarre mini games, play piano in a hotel or head out on a date in a sci-fi amusement park. A sequence that sees Cloud leading a military parade manages to be magnificent, weirdly touching and gloriously silly. Areas that could only be hinted at in 1997 or shown in CGI cinematics are now yours to wander around and gawp at. Where The Gold Saucer or the Costa Del Sol used to seem small and underwhelming, they’re now dazzling showcases of imaginative architecture and exuberant colour.

Character and drama

Keep to the beat or fail the parade (Square-Enix LTD)
Keep to the beat or fail the parade (Square-Enix LTD)

Crucially, Rebirth goes deeper than ever into the characters and the relationships within the party. There are points at which Cloud can chat and connect with potential love interests, Tifa and Aerith, or find out more about tough guy Barrett or tortured, brainy beast friend, Red XIII.

These relationships matter, altering the direction that key episodes in the story take. And as the game progresses and some fan favourite faces join the crew, it becomes even clearer that this isn’t just a gang of heroes but a makeshift family, where you want to learn more about each member and help them heal from their past tragedies and mistakes. These characters had charm even when they were a mass of pointy, pint-sized polygons. Now they look and feel alive, thanks to superb animation and voicework.

For newcomers to Final Fantasy, this isn’t the best place to start. While there have been attempts to simplify and streamline, with some useful tutorials, there are still some complex systems at play, and I’d recommend playing through Remake to get the basics down. More importantly, playing Remake gives an understanding of the cast, the plot and what’s at stake.

This second part is even stronger, packed with thrills, laughs, poignant moments and full-scale operatic drama, paired with the most magnificent visuals the series has summoned yet. If you knew and loved the original back in the day, then there are new wonders to discover and new questions you’ll want answered, but this remake isn’t just about nostalgia. Chapter by chapter, it’s becoming one of the greatest RPGs ever made.

Final Fantasy VII: Rebirth will be available on PlayStation 5 from February 29