No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)
Juan Barquin on Final Fantasy VII Rebirth

Ninety-nine hours into Final Fantasy VII Rebirth, and it has finally ended. The original Final Fantasy VII debuted nearly two decades ago, and Rebirth is one of a dozen or so attempts at capitalizing on its popularity—all of which I have sat through, for better or worse. Like creative director Tetsuya Nomura’s frequently maligned Kingdom Hearts series, it’s been as fascinating as it’s been frustrating seeing an arguably perfect game like FFVII demolished and rebuilt time and time again.

FFVII Remake, released just as the COVID-19 pandemic was raging in early 2020, was billed as an all-new way of experiencing the narrative of FFVII, about a ragtag team of eco-terrorists trying to take down the Shinra Electric Power Company before it sucks the life of their planet Gaia. The protagonists remain series regular former soldierCloud; his crush and team healer Aerith; his childhood friend Tifa; and the passionate man who hired him, Barret. But Remake was less a straight update and more an attempt at expanding the world of FFVII, and particularly the city of Midgar, only covering half of the first disc of the original game and adding in a host of substories. The result was a treasure of a game, one that not only improved an existing world but also took into account the wide lore that had been developed over years, and reacted to it, actively challenging the narratives presented in the original PlayStation game and its various spin-offs: the film Advent Children, or novels The Kids Are Alright and Trace of Two Pasts, and even Ever Crisis, the “free to play” gacha app that pitched itself as a loose remake of FFVII’s prequel, Crisis Core.

The continuation of the FFVII Remake series comes in the form of this year’s Rebirth, with the 2021 expansion INTERmission, starring Yuffie (an optional character in the original game that is now a staple of your party) as connective tissue. It’s possible the much lauded Rebirth serves as a signpost that too much of a good thing is actually bad. One might find an open-worldgame that takes less than 100 hours to be modest, especially in light of the massive Tears of the Kingdom and Elden Ring. But Rebirth and Remake together result in about 150+ hours (if you’re actually diving into the side quests), yet only adapt the first disc of a game made in the 1990s that, over three discs, maxed out at 60 hours.

The initial idea of expanding upon such a small sliver of a classic sparked speculation, but Remake established itself as something unique. It wasn’t just about expanding on characters lovingly, developing relationships that were already present in the game but sidelined for its core narrative, or simply discovering new playful ways to present an old bit, like filtering Cloud’s crossdressing journey through a Baz Luhrmann–styled dance show. It was about ensuring that the player knew there was a rich history that existed beyond the walls of this game, with which this “remake” would be in constant conversation.

Whether or not that history has been introduced particularly well in Remake and Rebirth is another story. It’s hard not to wonder what navigating the twists and turns of both games is like for folks coming into the series without years of context from Final Fantasy VII and Crisis Core (focused on Shinra soldier Zack Fair). Take Remake’s ending reveal that Zack—whose death in the original game was a crucial narrative event—ultimately lives: would anyone without previous knowledge of Zack be impacted by this change? One might argue that anyone playing Remake and Rebirth must have invested their time in the original game. After all, to truly appreciate Nomura’s unwieldy universes is to understand that, more often than not, the lore isn’t limited to the core text. To feel fulfilled by Kingdom Hearts 3’s finale requires having played spin-offs like 358/2 Days and Birth by Sleep (and even some mobile games and loose remakes for different platforms). Interconnected webs of stories that span various games and series are not uncommon (Yoko Taro’s Nier and Drakengard, for instance). But in most cases the games feature a contained narrative, as opposed to Remake, INTERmission, Rebirth, and whatever comes next. In its original iteration, all three discs of FFVII came out at once; it could be experienced immediately as a complete story. Rebirth suffers from the contemporary AAA game curse: if consumers are paying the big bucks for a game (especially one they’ve technically already played), what are they actually getting? Padding is, unfortunately, almost always the answer, but Rebirth takes it one step further by padding what is already an arguably padded extension of a fragment of an existing game.

The one instance where padding could be replaced by the kinder phrase “fleshing out” is in the way Rebirth handles characterization. The way old conversations and situations are warped into new ones, complete with never-before-seen cutscenes, result in established relationships becoming more fruitful. To say all of the performers are keyed into their characters is one thing—and certainly the voice acting feels more natural now that the characters are forced to experience hardships and joys together outside of the oppressive city they lived in—but the way the game presents and expands upon Aerith, a figure whose early death in Final Fantasy VII is as heartbreaking as it is necessary, is easily its most outstanding feature. Thanks to the design of her facial expressions, and the work of capable voice actress Briana White, there’s a new and unexpected sense of melancholy in Aerith’s every movement and word. Those who have played the original game know that Aerith is destined to die at the end of the first disc—at the end of this very game—but it almost feels like Aerith herself knows it. There’s a sense of resignation and of knowing her place in this narrative, even though she technically doesn’t, especially in a world where fate itself can be challenged.

With Remake and its introduction of the Whispers—ghastly “arbiters of fate” that exist to keep in line those attempting to change their destinies—every single movement the Final Fantasy VII party makes comes as an instance of déjà vu; this is the path your characters are meant to be on, or challenging, and you, as the player, only know that because you’ve played this exact narrative before. It’s a game that forces you to be intimately familiar with the past because, if not, you’re as clueless as Cloud himself is throughout the game. Every game in the series, but especially Remake and Rebirth, exists as something of a palimpsest; the in-game history is always being rewritten, even though the bones are the same.

Even setting aside narrative replication, elements of Rebirth are essentially the same as they were in Remake or in VII. The combat is largely similar, though with some additional tuning to make things flow smoothly in battle and for the party to feel more interconnected. To its credit, with the addition of more party members comes a chance for Rebirth to show us how distinct each character’s fighting style can be. The design takes the static rooms and barren landscapes of the original and recreates them as gorgeous, lived-in spaces that feel as expansive as an open world should (though I’ll always miss the polygons and fixed angles of the original PlayStation version).

There is much beauty to be found in the changes that have been made to make Final Fantasy VII feel bigger. Strolling into the Gold Saucer, a massive Magic Kingdom–style amusement park, and witnessing its transformation from the original game is awe-inducing; the unseen tubes that delivered one from area to area within the park have now become an extensive series of moving platforms that whisk one away to rides, games, and date locations. Or take the shifts in how the series favorite mode of transport Chocobos are maneuvered from area to area—sometimes simply being rock climbers and other times floating across wastelands and oceans—another inventive touch that makes the map feel diverse as opposed to just the same city over and over again. Even a distraction like Queen’s Blood (the endlessly replayable in-world card game that I am baffled Square has not yet exploited for mobile) serves as the kind of colorful worldbuilding that is easy to weave into the universe of Final Fantasy VII.

If Rebirth had stuck to this tried-and-true formula, one that directors Nomura, Naoki Hamaguchi, and Motomu Toriyama had executed rather exquisitely with Remake, it would be a worthy continuation. Remake felt as fresh as the later Neon Genesis Evangelion Rebuild films, or a series like Scott Pilgrim Takes Off, works that not only diverged from the source material but actively challenged the stories they told, while still being reverent. Especially powerful is the notion that the characters themselves can essentially rewrite their own narratives, as the players themselves bring their own contribution, their own replays and reimaginings. Rebirth suggests that there are infinite worlds in which Cloud, Aerith, and Zack’s respective journeys have turned out differently—one might die here, another might survive there—but rather than explore what this existential shift means to the characters, the game expands tenfold in a way that is outright insufferable.

This middle entry in a trilogy is so bereft of actual substance beyond what is inherent to the source material that it’s hard to muster the energy to take interest in where it’s going. Every time the game decides to cut away from its main story, whether by force or by choice (“side quests” that seem ignorable sometimes link to the narrative and have a distinct impact on in-game relationships), it loses its sense of pacing, and, even more unfortunate, its sense of wonder. Most of this is the fault of the character Chadley, acharming if unnecessary addition to Remake (a Shinra R&D intern working against the company) who has become an omnipresent monstrosity overseeing an exhausting collection mechanic called World Intel, which constantly tears the party away from the stakes at hand to play fetch. Rebirth features over 150 pieces of World Intel, and these quests are endless, spreading across the map on confusing patterns. If the player chooses to avoid interacting with World Intel entirely, Chadley will frequently berate you for not exploring more and doing his bidding, threatening to make Rebirth unplayable.

Rebirth is at its best when it focuses on what made Final Fantasy VII so endlessly compelling: its core characters, their connection, and how they try to survive and flourish in a world destined to destroy them and those around them. It’s in tracking the minutiae of how characters grow alongside each other, like Tifa and Aerith’s truly loving friendship, and in witnessing how their personalities are injected into every single scene and substory as though they’re all truly distinct individuals. It’s in how rewarding it is to experience our established cast navigate both their dark past and their often ridiculous present. It’s even in the moments when the mundane is made into something charming, like having to move around a giant vacuum just to get from one area to the next.

The way Rebirth fluidly moves among combat and cutscenes, while bouncing between alternate timelines, is sometimes astonishing, culminating in an exquisite final boss battle that demonstrates how the game has successfully taught the player to navigate every one of its characters' unique styles, as well as showcases how rewarding its melodramatic beats can be when they’re the point of focus. But that beauty is buried under a mountain of shit, like finding a serene hidden flower patch in the middle of a dump. There is simply too much to wander through, too much to push past, in order to complete what amounts to a third of a game. Those that do make it through the onslaught of nonsense might find something lovely and fulfilling, but at what cost?