I can't quite believe I'm running around Kalm in Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth. But here I am, in chapter 2 of the game, looking around a modern recreation of the idyllic town I once came to know so many years ago in the original 1997 release. Cloud and the gang have just spent the night in an inn and when I first head outside, I'm struck by how alive the town feels; all abustle with locals and visitors going about their day. Not unlike rediscovering Midgar in Final Fantasy 7 Remake, it's a place that feels both familiar and new. From stepping through the square to visiting shops, I take a moment just to appreciate how detailed everything is. I even get a kick out of hearing the updated take on the classic town theme begin to play in the background as I explore.
What I enjoy most about my time in Kalm, though, is the way it introduces me to one of the new features of Rebirth – and it's one that gets right to the heart of what makes me so excited for the follow-up. Just as Remake let us see new sides to its iconic cast of characters by letting us spend more time with them between the action, Rebirth is putting a greater focus on party bonds in every respect, from the combat to the story.
As I set out into town, I see this first-hand while chatting to Tifa. After choosing a timed response, a pop up tells me my relationship with Tifa has changed. This signals that my actions will not only affect the bonds I form with my party, but that the strength of these bonds can even alter parts of the story depending on my choices. After I agree to meet up with Aerith not long after, for example, I see how my decision to spend a bit of time with her factors into a group conversation later on. I may have only gotten a small taste of the experience during my hands-on session, but from my time spent battling to talking to the characters, the emphasis on bonds is a constant highlight.
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After Shinra soldiers make an appearance in Kalm, it's time for Cloud and the gang to make their exit, which leads me to the Grasslands; an open-zoned area that instantly imposes its sense of scale. We're no longer in the confines of Midgar, we're now out in the world at large. As the party looks out over the verdant fields and I step into the landscape, I'm reminded of the way the original game opens you up to the overworld for the first time. It's arguably one of the most memorable moments in the 1997 version, and it really does feel like Rebirth recaptures that for fans, with the promise of adventure on the horizon.
With a quest marker and few points of interest, I'm free to explore as I make my way through the area, with pockets of enemies spread around that let me get stuck into combat with my party. Crucially, it's here that I see how the bonds factor into battle, and build on what I believe made the Final Fantasy 7 Episode Intermission expansion so memorable: Synergy abilities. In Intermission, Yuffie and Sonon could make use of Synergy abilities that would combine their unique skills to perform a powerful attack. In Rebirth, Cloud and the party now also have Synergy abilities that two characters can team up and use, with each one playing to, and combining, a pair's strengths and fighting styles.
Not only this, but there are also Synergy Skills that you can use while blocking with R1, which are unique to different sets of characters and activate combined moves that don't require you to fill the ATB gauge to use. Using them in combat really makes the whole party feel unified, and it instills a sense of camaraderie that also effectively feeds into the way Rebirth is making bonds as one of its main themes.
As you go about your adventure, overcoming challenges, completing tasks, and exploring as a group, you'll increase your party level, which unlocks more skills and abilities for each character in your folios; which is essentially like a skill tree system that opens the way to more powers and increased stats. It's only natural that bonds would grow and form as you go through hardships together, and I love the way this idea has been baked into the leveling system. The way the whole party levels up constantly makes me feel like the group really are in this together, working as a team.
I couldn't wait to try out combat as Red XIII, who moves with an agile fluidity as he jumps, twirls, and rolls towards enemies. Using a synergy skill known as Wild Charge, Cloud and Aeirth joined me as I barrelled towards a foe, which is just one example of how the new Synergy powers constantly make the fighting feel like more of a united group effort. Making use of the different powers each pair has gives the combat more variety than that of Remake, and with the promise of unlocking more as the story progresses – not to mention having new party members join the fray later on – I can't wait to see what other moves await us.
With Final Fantasy 7 Remake bringing the group together in Midgar, it makes perfect sense that Rebirth would go all in on the bonds they form in and out of combat as journey together into the wider world. In terms of the story, I only got to see a few examples of this party bond system in action during my time in Kalm – which also includes a feature that lets you illustrates characters' feelings about you by bringing up a little smiley face emote above their heads – but what I did see only makes me more excited for what's to come. It's easy to see how this might make some of the biggest moments in the original game more impactful, and I can't wait to see how our choices will influence character relationships as the adventure progresses.
Square Enix has said that Rebirth can be a standalone experience - with a recap of the events of Remake said to be in the menu - and it certainly does a good job of tutoralizing everything right off the bat so you can get stuck into the action. Even so, I still think you'll get the most out of Rebirth if you have played Remake. I only got to check out the first chapter and began to make my way through chapter 2 before my time came to a close, but nothing quite beat the joy of seeing these characters I'd started to get to know in Remake once again.
With my demo kicking off with a flashback in Nibelheim that saw me control both Cloud and Sephiroth, Rebirth's recreation of some famous scenes really is a sight to behold. And with chapter 2 then taking me to Kalm - which is brought to life with more detail than ever before - my time with Rebirth came to a close in the first open area of the game in the Grasslands. Home to some familiar locales, I just reached the Chocobo farm in the area when I had to finish up my hands-on session, but even the ranch felt like a delightful and modern reimagining of the one found in the original game.
It's been four years since I made my way through Midgar with Cloud, Tifa, Aeirth, and Barret in Final Fantasy 7 Remake, and now, as I play through the opening two chapters of Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth, I realize just how much I've missed these characters. Accompanied by Red XIII, who's just joined the team, their group dynamics and exchanges are a constant highlight during my hands-on session; even so early on in the game. And after seeing how the followup is putting bonds front and center, I'm even more eager to reunite with them properly on February 29.
Look ahead to all of the future releases on the way with our roundup of upcoming PS5 games.