The Rebuild of Final Fantasy VII: You Can (Not) Defy Fate

The future of Final Fantasy VII is anchored to its past

The Rebuild of Final Fantasy VII: You Can (Not) Defy Fate
Source: Author.
Spoilers for Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy VII: Remake, and Final Fantasy VII: Rebirth.

Final Fantasy VII: Rebirth ends in two ways: exactly as I expected, and as something completely different.

My time with Rebirth was strange. It's been roughly a week since I rolled credits, and I'm still uncertain what I thought of the journey. Video games are complicated in that way—when measured purely as entertainment value, it's easy enough to consume a game, chalk it up to "fun" or "unfun," and walk away, ready to digest the next. But mindless consumption is an unfair way to treat any piece of media. Impactful experiences deserve thoughtful analysis, such as my piece on Final Fantasy XVI.

Final Fantasy VII: Rebirth was a fun game; I enjoyed it. Still, it feels like I need to put an enormous disclaimer before this piece, ensuring both myself and others that despite criticism, I did have fun. I am exhausted by the binaries that have plagued many discussions of art, especially in the gaming sector. Critique isn't negative by default, and analysis should be celebrated. When it comes to lengthy, complex, and rich games like Rebirth, calls for examination should be welcomed. Art discussions can be difficult, but to continually elevate video games as an art form, we must be able to collectively discuss the positives and negatives in a game without lumping the entire experience into the categories of "masterpiece" or "failure."

Source: Author.

Again, I enjoyed Rebirth. It was also one of the most maddening gaming experiences I've ever had. It is a game that, despite itself, makes a strong case for why open-world ideation doesn't easily mesh with RPG conventions, and how too much of a good thing ultimately squanders the power and nuance of coherent storytelling. The Final Fantasy VII Remake trilogy is an expansive, beautiful, extravagant endeavor that adds another decade-plus to Final Fantasy VII's already absurd lifespan. And despite what I enjoyed about it, the game is a frustrating example of how Square Enix has veered off course.

Where Remake wasn't really a remake as much as a reimagining, Rebirth is not so much its namesake as it is an attempt to redefine. This is not life or death, but something in-between. It's Schrödinger's Aerith, the inability of both creators and fans to let go, and an uneasy attempt to build something new on the bones of the old.

The endless cycle of the Lifestream

While playing Rebirth, my enjoyment was continually hampered by various small gameplay implements that, in a much shorter runtime, would have felt less like barbs. Many of these implements, and whether or not they are successful, come down to personal taste. While the original Final Fantasy VII was also a kitchen-sink RPG, its eclectic mix of mini-games and JRPG mechanics was limited by hardware and necessity. We've long lived in an era of excess, where games like Rebirth find palpable excuses for their bloat; they can be "everything games" immune to limits and time. Yoshinori Kitase, Kazushige Nojima, Tetsuya Nomura, Naoki Yoshida, and other key members of the Final Fantasy series have spoken about limitations between generations and systems, and how beginning with the PlayStation 3 era, those limitations were suddenly gone. This has become evident in games like Rebirth, where the developers feel less inclined to carve away any portion of their indulgences.

Final Fantasy VII Remake was a much smaller, more linear experience than Rebirth, focusing on a 4-hour segment of the game that was extrapolated into a 40-hour epic. Rebirth decided to continue rebuilding the format, and as the middle game of a trilogy, its load-bearing issues arise as connective tissue in an ongoing story whose scope has ludicrously widened. Enjoyment, and perceived coherence, of the Remake trilogy's story aren't anchored solely to the original game, either—over a decade of Compilation material means that even long-time fans might see unfamiliar characters and events.

The consensus online is that Rebirth is a rare return to form for Square Enix. Despite their differences, the closeness in the release of Final Fantasy XVI and Final Fantasy VII Rebirth has invited numerous comparisons, and considering how lacking the former was in RPG mechanics, it's not difficult to see why so many fans have been excited by Rebirth's pseudo-traditionalism. But like many things in Rebirth, even that comparison falls apart under much scrutiny, as the game is anything but traditional. This is a rebuild, and in the realm of experimenting with the familiar, both its strengths and weaknesses are profound, and damning.

Source: Author.

We've long lived in an era of excess, where games like Rebirth find palpable excuses for their bloat; they can be "everything games" immune to limits and time.

What we've gained, what we've lost

I played the original Final Fantasy VII back in January. 1997's mind-blowing RPG is one of the most mythologized RPGs of all time, and its quality is a mixture of facets and features that cement it as an immovable behemoth. Nostalgia places Final Fantasy VII at the right place and time for the series, and its iconic moments impressed upon a youthful audience who had not seen interactive storytelling of that league before. Square is keen on inviting comparisons, but enough time has passed since 1997 that the series has gained legions of new fans with their own perceptions of the original's quality and impact.

I am not a theory crafter. While a percentage of gamers enjoy theorizing over the possibilities within a text, I find it frustrating how often people obsess over what could be instead of discussing what is. The last few decades of Square Enix storytelling have been aggressively theory-friendly, pushing fans to constantly argue, discuss, and overanalyze the stories they enjoy. My apprehensions over Remake cropped up again in the weeks leading up to Rebirth's release. While a few of my concerns were assuaged, Rebirth made sure to introduce many peccadilloes into the mix, showcasing why the Remake trilogy works—and why it doesn't.

Most of the way through Rebirth's staggering 100 hours, I was surprised at how few chances they had taken with the game's overall story. Remake jumps the shark fairly hard in its closing hours, but Rebirth begins as if much of that hadn't occurred, with the characters discussing Sephiroth and the nature of their journey in the Kalm inn. And while Rebirth is tonally different from the original game, it at least attempted to be faithful to key moments that made Final Fantasy VII what it is. It is a pastiche of familiarity, even when memorable moments veer into the uncanny and the game becomes far too focused on character over plot.

Source: Author.

Rebirth is completely fettered to the past, but there is no clause saying that it must respect it.

Final Fantasy VII Rebirth takes huge swings with the source material, but remains shockingly reserved. A few revelations are made more ludicrous: Rebirth's iteration of the Nibelheim scene is completely devoid of horror, Sephiroth's "spike" of the Midgardsormr is overwhelmingly silly, and Sephiroth himself is less of a psychological horror haunting Cloud and more a cryptid serving to push the party ever onward in fate's correct direction. Rebirth does expand on the source material in some satisfying ways, mostly in party interaction and characterization, and many of these quiet interpersonal conversations between beloved characters are standouts. Much of my frustration came with a reminder of what the game was, and that after a particularly explosive boss fight or satisfying story moment, I would be returned to another dozen hours of mini-games, side quests, and open-world bloat.

How the mood and tone of essential scenes differ from the original will vary with personal mileage. Fans new to the series without comparison might shrug and enjoy them on their own merits, while fans of the original might raise an eyebrow at questionable changes such as the Shinra boat being transformed into a gaming cruise or Don Corneo becoming a quirky recurring character. It seems that even members of the original staff disagree with the original's intentions, such as Yoshinori Kitase's criticism of Dyne and Barret's history. Rebirth has its cross to bear, and some reimagined moments lack their punchy, melancholy weight.

Rebirth is completely fettered to the past, but there is no clause saying that it must respect it. This exercise of re-interpretation had me constantly examining my feelings and reservations. Again, this feels like Schrödinger's Aerith—Square does and doesn't commit to the sanctity of the original or the boldness of the new, and I am left baffled, my feelings on the experience worsening by the day. I am tormented by Whispers of my own, but instead of them obscuring my vision of fate, they have me doubting its purpose. Too much of Rebirth feels like spectacle in favor of story, and Square is walking a 30-year tightrope of playground rumor and speculation by way of multiverses and reunions.

Source: Author.

For the good of the planet

The criticisms of Rebirth mount, partially, because of the game's length. Too many times while playing did I envision a game with 30-40 percent less content, a more reserved RPG experience that could put its story at the forefront and improve its replayability. Why I felt this way is something of an internal struggle: if Rebirth had been a new Final Fantasy entry and not the middle piece of an FF VII trilogy, would I have cared about its length at all? Criticism of ultra-large single-player games like Rebirth or The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom is ultimately conspiratorial—when games are this long, it reduces the number of other games a person can play in a year. Final Fantasy VII Rebirth packs its odyssey full of to-dos, and it's easy to become distracted by finding just one more tower, playing just one more minigame, or fighting just one more monster. These criticisms aren't unique to Rebirth, either. Criticizing fans for playing the game the way it was intended is a disingenuous argument to justify the game's bloat—when it comes to $70+ games, I am tempted to do as much as I can.

When Rebirth remembers its strengths—heartfelt story moments, exciting boss battles, new revelations, FF-flavored effluvia—it's a powerhouse RPG. But as with Final Fantasy XVI and Final Fantasy VII Remake, its very existence as an RPG also leaves a lot to be desired. On the surface that's exactly what Rebirth is: impactful story moments punctuated by rewarding boss fights, weapons and items to find aplenty, rewards for challenging minigames, leveling up, and plenty of character customization. Other facets of its systems, however, are rightfully confusing and downright frustrating.

Source: Author.

Criticism of ultra-large single-player games like Rebirth or The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom is ultimately conspiratorial—when games are this long, it reduces the number of other games a person can play in a year.

But the systems in place, from mechanics to gameplay, only serve to cement its identity and remind the players that their journey is worth it. While some of the game's actual rewards are somewhat questionable (it is endlessly hilarious to me, and a trademark of modern AAA gaming, that most of the high-tier rewards in the Gold Saucer are monster materials and superfluous cosmetic items instead of, you know, weapons and Materia), the true reward of any RPG is payoff in the story you've invested so much time in. And while some players have certainly enjoyed Rebirth's more cosmic identity and serialized twists, Rebirth plays it fairly safe as a metatextual narrative. It is not brave enough to be Evangelion: 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance or Scott Pilgrim Takes Off, but it smartly leaves itself open just enough to fan the flames of fan theories for the next 3-4 years, sparking interest in a project whose total development time will be that of the first ten Final Fantasies combined.

It is a deliberately ambiguous game in every way except those that matter, resting its laurels on a delightful cast of characters whose dynamics, charisma, and vibes might distract you enough to realize that not much happens in the game's plot. When Part Three finally releases, Rebirth will have to be appraised again—not just as a middle game, but as a connective tissue that does or doesn't fulfil its ambitious promises. Another discussion will be had, one that's plagued cinema-goers for years now: is it smart storytelling to divvy up a finished narrative, or is there a more nefarious reason at play?

Living legacy

Final Fantasy VII Rebirth has a difficult time conveying exactly what it wants to be. After finishing the game and enjoying the ending more than I had expected to (minus Zack Fair; Crisis Core was an unbridled mistake), I've been able to sit with my thoughts and dissect the game. I don't think comparisons to Kingdom Hearts are entirely fair, but there are plenty of story beats completely undone by a lack of awareness (or perhaps too much).

New revelations such as the expanded role of the Gi, Tifa's early bath in the Lifestream, and an apparent alternate reality might serve up some big plot twists in the future, but for now, Rebirth has a bitter aftertaste. It's the sort of peregrination that Final Fantasy fans have come to tolerate—and that some strongly enjoy—but it leaves something to be desired when held up to scrutiny. Any true dissection and appraisal of Remake and Rebirth feel inherently flawed, as they rebuild upon decades of a beloved story. Rebirth can't be its own thing, but it also cannot completely unshackle itself from what created it. Just as Aerith is caught between possibilities, the Remake trilogy itself seems, for now, uncertain of which future it should wish for.

Source: Author.

Rebirth can't be its own thing, but it also cannot completely unshackle itself from what created it.

The final moments of Rebirth are split between absurd singularities and boss set pieces that frankly do invite Kingdom Hearts comparisons, threaded with enhanced expressions of the original's most impactful emotional beats. And since the Remake trilogy is forever looking to the future despite having one foot in the past, it interrupts its melancholy in favor of events that, at times, feel entirely too prompted by decades of fan speculation. The iconic moment of Cloud lowering Aerith into the waters of the Lifestream doesn't happen in Rebirth, because Square certainly wants us to know that the best is yet to come and that there is always more to see. In turn, we are robbed of moments we have already loved and resonated with. Fans might call these moments alternate realities or intertwining multiverses, but the reality here is the palimpsest of Final Fantasy VII, and the heavy hand of its original creators giving you everything and nothing at once.

When the dust settles and Cloud, the only one who can see Aerith, says his goodbyes, it is bittersweet. This non-committal offers fans the best of both worlds but comes off as a harsh moment of indecision. At least within the Evangelion Rebuilds, we are allowed moments of true anguish where we must sit with the unchanging reality of life and death. Rebirth skirts that line instead and tells the player that they actually can have everything they want, and that for some reason they deserve it. Zack doesn't die, but he does. Cloud doesn't fail to save Aerith, but he does. Rebirth isn't interested in failure, but I'm not convinced it's interested in victory, either. Grief is an important emotion, and too often Rebirth tells us that it's more important to be coddled, and all that is needed to up the intensity is to add layer after layer after layer.

Rebirth cannot be about letting go because Final Fantasy VII will not let go. Schrödinger's Aerith is not a person in a box, it is the box itself. Final Fantasy VII has become all about the beautiful wrapping. Whatever lies inside doesn't matter. The truth is, like far too much media these days, Rebirth is afraid. It's afraid of its audience, it's afraid of its legacy. I am left in the lurch, forever in the middle of it all, swirling in a Lifestream of binary Black and White fates, wondering if I had a little more clarity and fewer mini-games about leading a chicken through a jungle via a box and a string, I might feel differently.

Source: Author.

The Remake games are never really going to flip the script—they are instead only going to add a little more frosting to a pretty familiar cake.

Too much of Rebirth feels like superficiality, which might be my most subjective take. Final Fantasy has long been known for the strength of its storytelling, and while video games offer a very particular breed of story that can't be done elsewhere, it often feels like gaming is still playing catch up with the more established mediums. We are not here to make excuses. Any faults of Rebirth's for being the middle entry are entirely at the mercy of the game—we are still, ludicrously, enjoying a cumulative hundred-something-hour trilogy expansion of a 30-hour video game from 30 years ago. The Remake games are never really going to flip the script—they are instead only going to add a little more frosting to a pretty familiar cake.

The appraisal of Final Fantasy is truly impossible to grasp. It will be very interesting to see how the Remake trilogy sits with fans as a whole, half a decade from now. Rebirth's shortcomings ultimately don't overtake its strengths, but it's difficult to look past how the game is lesser primarily because of its unchecked ambitions. My disparate feelings about Rebirth arise because of how the game sits between possibilities and expectations; I am consistently torn between frustration and fun. It's possible to enjoy Rebirth and wonder what the entire Remake project would have looked like with a touch of restraint in many areas, and a little more boldness where it counts.


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