Aerith Gainsborough returns in Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth.

Aerith Gainsborough returns in Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth. / Square Enix

On July 4 just over 25 years ago, I rode a float in a parade, stuffed myself at an all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast, splashed in the local pool, and played in the woods ahead of our town's fireworks extravaganza. That evening, at a friend's sleepover, 11-year-old me took turns playing Final Fantasy 7 with five of my friends.

Mouths agape in the glow of an old-school TV, we cheered as the game's spikey-haired protagonist rode a majestic motorcycle, slashing throngs of pursuing enemies with a gigantic sword.

Like many, many other gamers, Final Fantasy 7 would become one of my favorites of all time. It almost single-handedly popularized its style of roleplaying games outside Japan and set a new standard for cinematic storytelling. It was an event in gaming history.

In 2020, Final Fantasy 7 Remake carried forward that pioneering legacy. Most fans assumed it would faithfully retread old ground. But publisher Square Enix flipped the game on its head. Turns out it was not a remake at all; it's a sequel that expanded the original's five-hour opening Midgar section into a 40-hour epic with brand-new combat, fleshed-out characters, and a fully realized, bustling city.

Part two of the Final Fantasy 7 remake trilogy, Rebirth — releasing to the public on Feb. 29 — hits incredible highs when it builds on what made Remake so compelling. But the steps it takes to create its own identity feel like remixes of outdated game designs rather than the characteristic innovation I've come to expect from the series. When Rebirth works, it's amazing, and when it drags, it really drags.

Exploring the Grasslands with Red XIII, Barrett, Tifa, Aerith, and our Chocobo companion.

Exploring the Grasslands with Red XIII, Barrett, Tifa, Aerith, and our Chocobo companion. / Square Enix

Don't spoil your appetite on the Da-chao beans

2020's Remake ended on a cliffhanger that opened the trilogy up to deviate from the original storyline. Rebirth's fresh twists are an absolute delight, but its formulaic open world design hampers its momentum.

That's not to say the open world is bad. It makes narrative sense after the party leaves the claustrophobic confines of Midgar. But it doesn't rise much above the Ubisoft checklist quests that felt stale a decade ago. There are diamonds in that rough (I encourage you to pursue the Protorelic in Junon), but you have to sift through hours of filler to get to the good stuff.

And believe me, there is a lot of good stuff. Rebirth is a maximalist, blow-out reimagining, far more extensive than what I expected. It takes every memorable moment from the original and turns it up to 11. There are 30+ minigames, most of which are good. Queen's Blood — a collectible card game clearly inspired by Gwent from The Witcher 3 — might be the best Final Fantasy minigame since Triple Triad.

Queen's Blood has its own game-spanning questline that contributes to the overall worldbuilding.

Queen's Blood has its own game-spanning questline that contributes to the overall worldbuilding. / Square Enix

I'm a numbers guy, so let me break it down for you. I did my due diligence for this review by putting in 75 hours to fully complete many regions and questlines. It'd likely take an additional 20 hours to 100% the game. If I cut out most side activities, I'd have finished the story in 45 hours — I know this because that's how long it took my editor. To illustrate, here's a handy visual aid:



If you enjoy open world games, then by all means, go nuts. But try not to fill up on potato chips when the gourmet main story awaits.

The gang's all here

The remake trilogy's greatest strength is how it manages to further develop characters that have been established for over two decades. I didn't think it was possible to appreciate them more, but Rebirth deepened my attachment to the original cast. Yuffie has quickly become a new favorite; Red XIII and Cait Sith are both fantastically reimagined. And Cloud. Sweet, moody Cloud. He's as dreamy and tortured as ever.

Rebirth particularly excels at evolving a believable group dynamic, now that all the party members have joined the fray (although Cid and Vincent aren't playable yet). Gorgeous cutscenes and incidental banter add up to a compelling story of how this fantastically random crew of people (plus a lion-dog and a robot cat) could band together to save the world. It's really quite touching how much everyone grows to care about each other; Aerith and Tifa forge an especially strong connection.

A showcase match against an old foe.

A showcase match against an old foe. / Square Enix

Relationships are even built into gameplay mechanics. When you complete character-focused side-quests or pick certain timed dialogue options, Cloud improves his Bonds of Friendship with a party member. This emphasis also extends to the excellent combat, with new, flashy Synergy Abilities that encourage you to try out each character combination. Eventually, your Bonds pay out unique scenes (dates, essentially) that you'll get treated to at a few points in the story, which are a real joy.

No, I'm not crying, it's just my allergies... okay yeah I'm crying

There are many moments when Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth's music (which is predictably phenomenal), its setting, and its characters combine into an unparalleled experience.

After hours of bland exploration, I walked into the inn at Under Junon and the track "On Our Way" came on. I went from room to room, chatting with my lovable party members, studying their expressions and dialogue with fascination. I smiled. I teared up. I felt like it was 1998 again, and I was discovering my new favorite game.

Cloud Strife, in all his stoic, troubled glory.

Cloud Strife, in all his stoic, troubled glory. / Square Enix

I just want to say: keep on keeping on, Square Enix. I see how impossible it's been to please everyone. Final Fantasy 13 was too linear, so you opened Final Fantasy 15 up to mixed results. Then you tried to steer the series further towards action with Final Fantasy 16 and it didn't go over well with many fans.

I'm not sure what you're cooking up for the last installment in the remake trilogy, but I'm betting you'll make me weep for joy in between groans of frustration at tedious gameplay. Whatever it looks like, and whatever it's called (I'd suggest "Final Fantasy 7 Refinance"), I'll be playing it.