Stepping onto the slopes leading up to Mt Nibel, I felt transported in time. Back in 1997, when I was ten and first jumping headlong into the world of RPGs, I found myself standing on these very slopes, watching the backstory between Cloud, Tifa, and Sephiroth play out.
It was such a cool moment back then, sitting in my small room huddled around my PlayStation that my dad bought for me out of the back of someone's car and, along with it, a copy of FFVII. At this moment, I got to party with Sephiroth. While I didn't get to control him in combat, it was cool nonetheless to experience fighting alongside this legendary character each person in the story had spoken of with a mixture of reverence and awe-inspired fear.
So it was an even cooler experience when I actually got to play as Sephiroth during last week's preview event, going hands-on with Final Fantasy VII REBIRTH. During my hour-long demo, I had the chance to check out an early build of the next installment in the Final Fantasy VII series started by 2020's REMAKE. The build itself comprised of two parts: A story segment taking Cloud, Sephiroth, and Tifa up towards the Mako Reactor in Mt Nibel, as well as a more open-world exploration section where I was able to check out Junon and the surrounding areas.
Warning: Mild story spoilers for Final Fantasy VII REMAKE ahead!
One Winged Angel
Final Fantasy VII REBIRTH picks up the narrative after REMAKE: the party has just left Midgar after successfully defeating Sephiroth at the Edge of Creation. The demo I played last week picks up a bit further down REBIRTH's narrative, taking me through the Fated Mt. Nibel Mission.
A SOLDIER survey team, led by Sephiroth, is sent to investigate the Mako Reactor near Nibelheim. Tifa, a local and Cloud's childhood friend, acts as their guide to the Reactor itself. This portion of the narrative back in the original FFVII was important as it helped to establish Sephiroth's motivations and build his character, while also providing some much-needed backstory for Cloud and Tifa's relationship.
The slopes of Mt Nibel in REBIRTH are dark, craggy, and full of Mako seeping out of the planet in the form of jagged, luminescent crystals. The path was rather linear, as many of the main story missions in REMAKE tended to be, though it provided plenty of room and opportunity to put Cloud and Sephiroth's SOLDIER skills to the test.
The combat system of Final Fantasy VII REMAKE is back in full force, with its mix of action combat and tactical turn-based systems with the ATB gauge. You can issue commands to party members, sling spells with the help of Materia and more, all while keeping that Buster Sword swinging at an enemy.
While it felt good to swing Cloud's hefty blade around again, it was even better to take control of Sephiroth, his comically large Masamune deftly caring Insectoid Chimeras up like they were nothing. Each swing of the blade seemed like five more slashes were landed that I couldn't even see, while maneuvering the legendary SOLDIER hero felt effortless.
Sephiroth is blazing fast too, feeling as though he's going warp speed compared to Cloud. In one fight towards the end of the demo, while fighting a Materia Guardian, it jumps onto the ceiling, attacking the two Queen Gohma style. While I struggled to get Cloud to zip up there ad mid-air attack the vulnerable legs of the creature, Sephiroth could warp there with ease. Attacks such as his Hell's Gate which see Sephiroth raise upwards only to slam his Masamune down on his enemy really make him feel distinct and unique compared to Cloud's more power-focused, brute force strikes.
Everything is heightened by the fact that Final Fantasy VII REBIRTH looks incredible, even in motion. The graphics are already shaping up to be some of the series best in my opinion, taking the work done on REMAKE and enhancing it. Combat really shines, with the showers of particle effects during a spell cast a particular highlight for me. It wasn't perfect, there were some rough edges with anti-aliasing and ambient occlusion, but it's an early demo build. I cannot wait to see what the final product looks like as the team polishes in the months ahead.
One new wrinkle that Final Fantasy VII REBIRTH brings is its new Syngergy system. Both Synergy commands and abilities allow party members to work together to down enemies or help the party out. Attacks such as Cloud and Barret's Bullet Batter, which sees Barret shoot at Cloud's Buster Sword, only for the latter to bat the bullets at an enemy, or one where Cloud and Sephiroth both attack the enemy furiously called Dual Blade Dance with three, strong strikes.
The commands can be used at any time during combat while blocking and don't use ATB, though the more powerful Synergy Abilities do use ATB and require new Synergy Charges, which are earned in combat.
The new system flowed pretty well during large combat encounters, though tying the commands to the block button meant that I didn't always remember I could do them until I happened to pull R1 to block something. And that might be the idea - they are there to be used when needed, but not necessarily abused since they don't require resources to pull off.
The Abilities, though, are pretty cool. One Ability sees Aerith imbue's Cloud's Buster Sword with Magic, only to have the SOLDIER jump into the air to dump myraid charged up strikes at an enemy, somersaulting the whole time. They are flashy and feel like a great reward to use in a fight when they get unlocked. I do appreciate too that, like the powerful Limit Break skills, they aren't always available, instead you need to earn them. I can't wait to see what combinations I like, such as seeing how Yuffie and Cait Sith might pull off an attack, or even when we learn more about Vincent in REBIRTH.
Welcome To Junon
The second part of our demo took place in Junon, the Shinra stronghold near the coast on the main continent. This more open area highlighted some of the exploration that you'll be able to do in Final Fantasy VII REBIRTH. The stronghold city, its comically large naval cannon extending out over the cliffside dominated my view, and as someone who remembers fondly the various scenes in this town, from pretending to be a Shinra Soldier on parade to fighting with Rufus once again, I couldn't wait to go topside.
As we know, Cloud will be able to move around the world on everything from a broken down-looking truck to a segway. Chocobos are ubiquitous with this game, and during our Junon excursion, we had a mountain chocobo to use.
I don't think I was, nor ever could be, fully prepared to see Red XIII sitting atop a Chocobo like he's people. It took all my willpower to not just crack up in the room where the demo took place.
Running around the Junon open world felt almost freeing, especially since all of REMAKE took place inside the steel of Midgar. Junon was sunny, with lush fields giving way to a cliffside looking out over an idyllic ocea. Atop the Junon clifface hovered the High Wind, the iconic airship in Final Fantasy VII.
It was here we had access to more of the party members, with Red XIII playable as well. He's fast, reminding a bit of Sephiroth's speed, but he's all about closing the distance to deal devastatingly quick slashes and bites on an enemy. One synergy skill sees Barret literally pick up Red and chuck him at the enemy, dealing damage on impact.
Red XIII also builds Vengeance, a resource he uses when he takes damage while blocking. Vengeance can be used to unleash primal and beastly attacks at a foe, dealing massive damage if you're skilled enough to control Red while in his primal rage.
Eventually, I made my way to lower Junon, the slum underneath the shining Shinra city on top of the cliff. The slums themselves had a feel of Midgar, with the people not broken by their experience as literally second and third class citizens in Shinra's society, but definitely feeling the pain of being forgotten. However, it doesn't take long for trouble to find Avalanche, as the slums are attacked by a giant water monster, the Terror of the Deep after it fails in capturing its prey - Yuffie and one incredibly smart Dolphin - in the water.
While the party size is still three total, I did like the fact that the rest of your team are visible during the fight, dodging attacks and "attacking" themselves in the distance. But all the real damage is done by the main party. Dodging geyser attacks or having to save teammates from being suspended in some nasty water never seemed to get old - it provided some great points of tension during the fight where I had to decide, especially when those bubbles are better downed using spells rather than conventional attacks. It became a game of resources - do I spend that AP and ATB gauge on the Terror himself, or on the crowd control?
All in all, Final Fantasy VII REBIRTH looks to be shaping up quite nicely. Combat feels familiar, yet a step improved over the last entry, and I'm excited to see how the Square Enix team takes the story from the end of REMAKE on through REBIRTH. Final Fantasy VII REBIRTH launches on PlayStation 5 on February 29th, 2024.