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Final Fantasy VII Rebirth Is The Best Of A Dying Breed

The industry probably doesn't have many of these left in it, but it's good to go out on a high note

Square Enix

Final Fantasy VII Rebirth is finally out, and Square Enix actually pulled it off – well, for the most part. The game is equal parts gargantuan and befuddling, a masterwork of triple-A maximalism when it’s firing on all cylinders and a cautionary tale about the pratfalls of triple-A excess anytime open-world map objectives enter the mix. Given the way the industry seems to be headed, we probably won’t get many more of these. Chris and I had a talk about that.  

Nathan: Hi Chris! We have both been playing Final Fantasy VII Rebirth, a game that feels so overstuffed that it's near to bursting. I just made it to Costa Del Sol last night, but I've also been trying to do literally everything – including (ugh) map objectives – perhaps to my own detriment. That said, most of the game has ruled, especially the bit where you round up Shinra soldiers in Junon and the Queen's Blood tournament on the boat. How far along are you? What have you been liking/disliking?

Chris: I am roughly around where you are right now, although I am not trying to 100 percent everything. I also just got to Costa Del Sol. As a person who likes spending a budget on frivolous minigames, I am really enjoying this game because it's basically entirely side stuff. Every time the game reminds you that it has a plot or a grand scheme in mind, I wanna shoo it away like a fly. Let me ride my segway.

It's so funny that their solution to an open world was to turn this entire game into an Ubisoft-style map game, and I am sure repetition will make me tire of that. Goofy side stuff in an open world was the part of FFXV that was legitimately good before it disintegrated, so I am glad they get to do it again.

What about you?

Every time the game reminds you that it has a plot or a grand scheme in mind, I wanna shoo it away like a fly. Let me ride my segway.

Nathan: Yeah, it's funny because I love all the side stuff, which sounds like it would be compatible with an open world. But the kind of open world they settled on is just tedious. It's all repetitive challenges and towers, the latter of which are indicative of the open world's whole thing. Somehow, Rebirth's towers make maybe 30 seconds of climbing feel like an hour. There's just so much annoying friction in the game's movement and how the developers designed these spaces. If you're already feeling frustrated by a challenge, the holistic impact of all that friction sprinkled throughout the open world doubles it. I nearly lost my mind running around the open world and completing Fort Condor – the rare minigame that sucks – challenges the other night. 

That said, most of the minigames are super fun and tend to pop up when the game funnels you into more compact, sometimes linear spaces. I loved the second half of chapter four and all of chapter five because they just tossed the open world out the window and gave me back-to-back segments where the main cast got up to all sorts of zany hijinks. 

This game can be really funny, and that has consistently surprised me. Like the massive group of soldiers in Junon that clomps around outside and repeatedly salutes anytime you cross their path? So good. Same with the club you find Rude in, where they have a strict bald-people-only policy. This game loves being goofy, and more importantly, it commits to every bit.

Chris: Yeah that part rules, I was really impressed with how they handled Junon. 

I was mildly positive about the first game even if I hated the ending, but the Honey Bee Inn bit was objectively the best part, and they seemed to have learned and leaned into that. Small scale, tiny human stories are more interesting than larger ones to me in RPGs. The game really sings when it leans into camp and being fun, which is basically the entire premise of the Like A Dragon series at this point. I wish more games learned that lesson. Taking segments that were small and human and blowing them up is the best thing this game does. I love Mr. Dolphin.

That said I’m not sure the entire project of remaking or reinterpreting Final Fantasy VII is additive relative to the amount of time it spends. I’ve never found the Crisis Core-adjacent stuff particularly interesting, and I don’t know if this game’s meditation on its own legacy really works. It also feels slightly bittersweet that something like this has to be tied to an existing game rather than being its own thing. But I also have come to terms with the limitations of this entire project and am just enjoying what it’s doing well.

Nathan: Yeah, I've been taking notes while playing, and one of them reads, "These map activities could have been an email." There's so much fluff and filler that it's hard to discern what Rebirth is trying to add to Remake's reinterpretation of FFVII's legacy, at least at this point. I enjoyed that element of Remake, but here it feels largely irrelevant to what makes the game good. 

Rebirth is a hangout simulator! When The Plot emerges, it almost feels like a different game. In some ways, I respect that it's willing to just embrace being at odds with itself. The game can be super self-serious and comically absurd, and it's fine with these things coexisting – even clashing. But it feels like it's trying to do so many things that it never fully succeeds at any of them, though at times it does get tantalizingly close.

Chris: I think totally that’s always been the Kingdom Hearts/Nomura-adjacent dissonance. I don’t really take issue with it; it’s just not for me.

Nathan: I'm sure there are people who it is for -- I think I cared more about all the inscrutable lore and edgy black cloaks when I was a teenager -- but in some ways it feels like Nomura doing what's expected of him? Also, perhaps more charitably, it's a means of opening up this possibility space where a game can do so much silly, weird shit. We've all been kind of programmed to accept Nomura's specific approach to maximalism. It's an RPG subgenre unto itself.

Chris: It’s not just him obviously, like it is also other people. This is a game made by people who were shaped by that legacy. But as the progenitor of a kind of tone, yes.

I don’t know, I guess what I mean is I came into this game expecting to be annoyed by the plot stuff, particularly everything they implied about Tifa, and largely it’s not tried to bother me with those details. I am almost certain that I will be bothered by the end, but I’m having a blast with Queen’s Blood. There are times when they introduce an OC and it feels like the scene in The Simpsons where Poochie is introduced. But the Poochieness works because they lean into it.

I guess I have come to temper my expectations of what’s possible for games at this scale. Maybe that’s moving the goalposts, but I know the effort it takes to make stuff like this, the need for a ROI, and outside of FromSoft it’s hard to do anything truly bold in this bracket.

Nathan: Yeah, I'm inclined to agree. I think the Queen's Blood boat tournament encapsulates all of this really well. You wind up playing against all these characters you've met before – your party, folks from Remake (including Andrea from the Honey Bee Inn), Chadley, etc – and it's mostly fan service. But there are some really cute, fun character moments in there that continue the game's larger project of humanizing characters who were previously, in some cases, stereotypes or archetypes.

That got me thinking: Would this game work as well if it wasn't Final Fantasy VII, if it was an original story? At first I was inclined to say no, Remake and Rebirth have made me really enjoy these characters. But then I realized that – as Remake continually reminded us – these are effectively new characters by virtue of having all these new experiences and getting so fleshed out. It's not the Cloud, Tifa, Aerith, Barret, and Red XIII of yore I'm attached to; it's these new ones. So yes, this could have been a totally separate game. But also, I really like this one as is, and that's fine!

When I see something like FF7R, it feels like watching a blockbuster at the end of the golden age of the Hollywood studio system: a wonderful but unsustainable technicolor extravaganza that is becoming rarer and rarer.

Chris: For me it’s less about if this game would work better in another context, or if this talent, time, and money is being used productively. Games take ages to develop and if this entire saga of games doesn’t end up making the plot more interesting than a single game that took a few years to develop, then can it all be said to have been worth it? 

Let me put it this way: Despite being a weird, broken, and unbalanced game, Stranger of Paradise was a more interesting and frankly efficient reinterpretation of Final Fantasy than this is. And it does it pretty efficiently too: You’re in and out in, like, 25 hours tops.

I think if I want something I’m going to think about for a while, that’s the space I’m going to look at. Bizarre AA games that take a few years to make and are more willing to make strong choices. When I see something like FF7R, it feels like watching a blockbuster at the end of the golden age of the Hollywood studio system: a wonderful but unsustainable technicolor extravaganza that is becoming rarer and rarer.

That said, the soundtrack rules.

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