— Square Enix

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 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.

Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth launches on February 29 for PS5.

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