There's a lot of story to discuss in Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth. Much of that was covered in the first part of this preview. Of course, there's more to this game than just its story. Rebirth promises dozens of hours of entertainment and a much broader overall scope than its predecessor. Like Rebirth's story, we got a mere taste of that with last year's Tokyo Game Show. Square Enix had plenty more to show off recently during Shacknews' hands-on session with the upcoming blockbuster.
Following the opening chapter that flashed back to the Nibelheim Incident, Cloud woke up to an empty inn. Innkeeper Broden let Cloud know that he basically had the day to himself, which essentially allows players to learn more about the game's various vendor types. But first, it was time to learn about Queen's Blood. Think back to Fort Condor from Remake's Intergrade DLC and you'll start to get the idea of what Queen's Blood is, only instead of a strategy game within the main story, Queen's Blood is a card game. The idea is that players lay down cards across three different lanes. The winner is the player with the most cumulative power across at least two of the three lanes. Each card takes up a different amount of tiles and can be played across different positions. It might take a few rounds through the tutorial to grasp what's happening, but Square is certainly hopeful that players will catch on. That's because Queen's Blood cards will be scattered across the game with different NPCs around the world holding various cards.
After becoming familiar with Queen's Blood, it's time for players to familiarize themselves with other elements of Rebirth. Talking with Red XIII will establish the party level mechanic. By throwing certain characters into your party and including them in battle or in your exploration outings, character bonds will deepen and party levels can be increased. A high party level means that more skills and abilities will be made available. Some of those abilities will be higher-level tandem attacks between two party members. That won't be all that players should monitor. In addition to individual attacks and abilities that characters learn by leveling up, players can improve their weapons with materia while Folios open up a vast skill tree that allow characters to be customized to a user's play style. If a Folio layout doesn't suit the player, it's possible to reset it and use a different layout.
By far, Rebirth's most intriguing idea surfaces when Aerith asks Cloud for a quick date along the Clock Tower. It's an idea that sounds basic on the surface and like a fun diversion based on what players experienced with these two back in Final Fantasy 7 Remake. However, something funny happens when Aerith asks Cloud out. A series of dialogue choices appears. Whatever answer Cloud gives, a prompt reading "Your relationship with Aerith has changed."
Along the way to that date, I spot Tifa and stop for a chat. Tifa points to a tank and asks Cloud if it reminds him of anything. Suddenly, dialogue options pop up. After giving an answer, a prompt suddenly reads "Your relationship with Tifa has changed." I raised an eyebrow, realizing that this Square Enix game had suddenly gone all "Telltale Games" on me. The conversation ends on a high note and I make nothing else of it for the moment.
On the way to Aerith, another party member appears in the corner. It's Barret at a nearby bar. Cloud asks if he's already drinking, at which point Barret says he won't have another drop until Seventh Heaven resumes business. Another dialogue prompt comes up. After giving one of three options, a prompt pops up saying "Your relationship with Barret has changed."
As one might have surmised by this point, yes, Cloud's relationships with his fellow party members will be relevant throughout Rebirth. Certain actions and certain dialogue choices can affect how characters like Tifa, Barret, and Aerith feel about him. While there was obviously not enough time with the game to see the long-term ramifications of this mechanic, if any, the game states that portions of the story can be altered based on Cloud's bonds with his friends. Given how much of the trilogy's overarching story already stands to change with the presence of Remake's Whispers, the idea of Rebirth potentially having certain story outcomes change based on Cloud's choices makes the narrative even more interesting.
After establishing some of Rebirth's mechanics, the second chapter firmly establishes Cloud and company as fugitives on the run from Shinra Corporation. After Shinra's forces track them to Kalm, Cloud and the rest of the party are shown an escape route from Broden, who implies that he's part of a covert entity (similar to Avalanche) looking to undermine the forces in power. The party is soon able to escape to the Grasslands, which is a vast piece of Rebirth's open world component.
While it's possible to meander about on foot and look for enemies to fight, players will soon discover that the way forward is across a deep swamp. While it's technically possible to swim across, the deadly Midgarsormr is potentially waiting along the path to attack. To proceed, the party will need to ride Chocobos. This introduces the Chocobo Ranch along with some bird-related side activities. After catching a Chocobo through a brief stealth mini-game, players can customize their bird, take it along for Chocobo races, and summon it anytime they need to traverse a vast region.
Of course, Rebirth couldn't truly feel like a complete story without Chadley. After escaping Section 7's collapse, Chadley set up shop near the Chocobo farm and needs more data from Cloud than ever. To help his cause, players can activate remnawave towers in the open world and take part in his combat simulations. Chadley will make it worth the user's while by providing rare materia for their troubles.
Even after playing several hours, I was amazed by how much there was to do in Rebirth and how much I wasn't able to actually get to. Kalm has an entire job board filled with mercenary gigs to help earn extra Gil, while I never did go down that main path to confront the Midgarsormr. Just based on how much I did and how little I actually progressed, I can totally believe that Rebirth stands to be dozens of hours longer than Final Fantasy 7 Remake.
Those who want to experience the full adventure will want to start setting aside some time at the end of this month. Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth will release exclusively on the PlayStation 5 on Thursday, February 29.
This preview is based on an on-site PlayStation 5 demo from a press event in Los Angeles. It may not be representative of the final product.