Just one more hand. Just one more attempt to win at the card game, Queen’s Blood. In my limited preview time with Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth, weeks before the game is due to be released, I may have spent a little too long learning the rules of this companion card game, introduced relatively early into the game. And I regret nothing. (For one, because I previewed most of the changes to the battle system a few months ago.)
This early addiction bodes well for the wider game. It’s a sign that the team behind this sequel-of-a-remake is making a world bigger and richer than the occasionally on-the-rails one in Remake. I’m hoping for a more open-world experience, now that the characters have finally escaped Midgar. (See: the plot of Final Fantasy 7 Remake) A change of location, too, shakes up the look of Rebirth. It has plants! Nature, everywhere! At least once you’re out of a satellite town called Kalm in Chapter 2.
First, I played through Chapter 1, which also acts as a tutorial. It’s a flashback to Nibelheim, which explains how protagonist Cloud and antagonist Sephiroth worked together before; well, the latter seemingly lost his mind and slaughtered everyone in town.
It’s a more story-weighted version of my earlier demo, but I could now explore the town that multiple party members grew up in. When Cloud explores his friend Tifa’s house – without her permission – it sets up some entertaining criticisms of his lack of boundaries. Still, it was all predicated on me choosing to be awful and barge into Tifa’s room, play her piano, and just be a bit of a creep.
The chapter also raises some unanswered questions around Cloud and his fuzzy memories of Nibelheim. Anyone who’s played the original knows where this is going, but given how some characters in the first third of the game didn’t die, I’m waiting to see how the developers further shake up the plot for new and old fans. There should be a significant death during this middle chapter of the game: Will they twist the knife?
Let’s go back to the new card game. Queen’s Blood follows on from Triple Triad, Tetra Master and that weird pinball-ish game in Final Fantasy XV that might best be forgotten. You’ll be able to customize your deck of cards, each with a different layout of tiles and occasional special effects. It’s almost Risk-like, aiming to dominate the board and rack up the highest score on three rows. Cards can reclaim territory, lower stats, and all the usual videogame card antics, and yes, I am struggling to explain it in words. But it’s fun. And I should have stopped playing to explore more of the grasslands than I did.
Once you’ve wrapped up your card games and stepped out from Kalm, I could explore in most directions. In the time I had leftover, I saw points of interest packed with treasure, unique monster packs, resources to collect, weapons with skills to master, chocobos to tame and race, chocobo stops to repair (which add fast-travel spots to the map); and the return of the terribly-named Chad with virtual battles and tasks for you to help unlock more materia for extra spells and abilities. I then ate dirt in a battle to unlock the summon spell for Titan.
I liked this pick-and-choose busy-ness, but some diversions felt like they were there for the sake of killing time, a la Assassin’s Creed. I hope the developers remember to pare down travel time where they can, because traversing an area can get boring, even when riding a giant bird.
Fortunately, getting from A to B is interrupted by entertaining, occasionally challenging, battles. One new addition to Rebirth is an enemy detection radar that shows enemies’ aggression level, helping you avoid fights when you just want to get going.
Another new dynamic is the party’s bonds with each other, which are now integrated with your movesets and stats. This presented itself in dialogue choices and side quests, adding a popular social mechanic seen in so many JRPGs into this remake sequel. What’s notable is that the more you deepen this friendship, a separate skill tree improves characters’ stats and even unlocks new synergy attacks (which I elaborated on here) to use in battle. Square Enix teased that the level of bonds could affect the story too – but that could just reflect the theme park ‘date’ that Cloud goes on, later, in the original game. We’ll find out in a few weeks.
Final Fantasy VII Rebirth launches on the PS5 on February 29, 2024.
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