Final Fantasy VII Rebirth hands-on report – playable Sephiroth, Chocobo exploration, Junon and more

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Final Fantasy VII Rebirth hands-on report – playable Sephiroth, Chocobo exploration, Junon and more

Two-part Tokyo Game Show demo gives us a tantalizing taste of what’s to come next February.

Yes, you’ll be able to play as Sephiroth. As part of a new gameplay trailer earlier this year, Final Fantasy VII Rebirth confirmed a key scene from the original would feature in this, the second entry in a three-game project of the seminal PS1 classic. In 1997, that moment – a younger, revenge-driven Tifa facing off against Sephiroth – formed part of an extended playable flashback. Back then, the SOLDIER legend was but an NPC in your party. In last week’s State of Play, a new trailer revealed not only would that flashback be present in Final Fantasy VII Rebirth in some capacity, but an accompanying interview confirmed the One-Winged Angel will be DualSense ready. And now, thanks to a new hands-on with a preview build of the game, we know what playing as Sephiroth will feel like.

That build is actually a two-part demo. The first half is a combat-heavy but story-driven section that charts Cloud and Sephiroth’s mission to the mountainous Nibelheim and is around 20 minutes in length. The second part – Cloud and company’s post-Midgar adventure taking them across a sweeping valley sat in the shadow of Junon – is of similar length, if you head straight to the marked destination on the HUD. Play time could be and is extended due to the area’s expansive world and side activities that beckon: Chocobo chicks to follow, Chocobo farms visit to customize your newly-acquired mount, beasts to thrash with one eye on optional objectives. (It’s also an area rendered in such stunning detail, that I lose time just panning the in-game camera around to admire my surroundings.)

The demo as a whole is curated for attendees at this week’s Tokyo Game Show. As such additional tutorials are built-in to explain mechanics and new additions, to refresh or familiarize players depending on whether they’re returning from Final Fantasy VII Remake or not. We managed to get an early look ahead of the showfloor opening, and here’s what we discovered.

The mountain of Nibelheim was rich in collectable, equipable Materia, the demo egging me on to change my setup frequently to test the new types. Examples included Magnify Materia, increasing the number of enemies struck by an attack-type Materia if Magnify was slotted in alongside them. Fun yet potentially powerful was the  ‘Spare Change’ Materia, with my attack strength based on how much Gil I’d cast (toss?) at an enemy. 

Kickass Angel: The Nibelheim flashback pairs Sephiroth with a younger Cloud, the latter’s inexperience serving as a window for players to receive world-building exposition from both his comrade and Tifa (pre-Avalanche and accompanying the visiting Shinra military as a local guide). In the original game, the Masamune wielder played NPC in your party, commanding instant respect with his four-digit long stack of HP and ability to one-shot most enemies with a single swipe of his sword. In Final Fantasy VII Rebirth, you’ve the choice to direct or control him. That aspect of the battle system will be similar to Final Fantasy VII Remake players (use DualSense triggers to issue commands to allies, D-Pad left or right to switch character). He’s no longer a one-strike man, but still boasts some spectacular takedown skills that constantly catches the eye (fun note: while his and Cloud’s HP stats are comparable in FFVII Rebirth, Sephiroth’s HP is still in the four digit range). Alongside some stylish and unique Abilities he’s able to deploy during fights, he can also team up with Cloud to execute one of FFVII Rebirth’s flashy new features: Synergy moves (more in those in a moment). Sadly this demo sequence is all-too brief, but the embellished combat and story moments from the original leaves me in a similar awe of Sephiroth as it did back in the day.

The Nibelheim portion of the demo had me slowly ascend the mountainside, with narrow paths and cliff face climbs. Panning the camera as I explored revealed glowing Materia, suggesting optional routes I hadn’t spotted. Rest Stops allowed recovery of HP and MP. At one point a dangerous build up of Mako gas blanketed the lobby area of an elevator, triggering a lockdown, forcing me to cleanse the area with a nearby purifier unit before the lift reactivated.

Synergy Skills and Abilities: These let two characters in your active party join forces for a powerful attack during combat. They’ve been developed with each member’s fight style and strengths in mind, meaning there’s unique Synergies for every pairing – another reason to continually mix up your active party while exploring. Some Synergies are AOE, others directional. You’ll discover which ones can be deployed immediately, which need a wind up before unleashing. All require you to weigh up and measure enemy (and sometimes friendly) placements correctly to ensure these strikes land. Synergies come in two flavors: Skills and Abilities, each getting a subsection of the command menu (slow time to a crawl with a press of X to enter Tactical Mode and cycle through combat options to strategize your party’s next moves).  

Your entire group – even those not actively in your party – mount up on Chocobos and follow your lead as you explore. Yes, that includes Red XIII. And yes, it looks as wonderfully absurd as you’d imagine.

Junon: As mentioned, the second section of the demo granted (almost) free exploration of a rugged stretch of land between the Mythril Mine and Junon. Certain sections were closed off for the demo, but still there lay a generous section of terrain for me to guide my Chocobo-riding party around. This area in particular really reinforced the game’s visual splendor, Square Enix making its rendering of the towering Junon and the surrounding landscape wallpaper-worthy. Similar to the first luscious in-game pans of Midgar in Final Fantasy VII Remake, I’m dazzled by what was once best presented in cutting edge CG cutscenes in the 90s is now outstripped by an in-game model. That includes Under Junon, a township built under the feet of Junon and which I have fond memories visiting the first time, and the next-gen expansion retains the original’s vibe but better captures the contrasting scale of it and the colossus towering above.

The Open Wilds of Junon hide many secrets, some of which can be sniffed out by your Chocobo, others requiring you to aid Chocobo chicks. Help a chick reactivate a Chocobo stop and you’ll earn a Golden Plume, which can be cashed in at a nearby Chocobo farm to unlock cosmetics for your bird mount.

A stowaway ninja, a dolphin and a boss fight: Under Junon is designed as the end destination of the second demo, but the demo’s climax plays out in an epic battle by the shoreline nearby. The serpentine monster from the original returns as the area’s boss battle, though the reason for its attack is a little different this time round. In Final Fantasy VII Rebirth it’s the introduction (and rescue) of Yuffie Kisaragi (who players last encountered in Final Fantasy VII Remake EPISODE INTERmission) as she sails landward that sets up the reimagined clash between seaborn threat and Avalanche’s finest.

The demo concludes with a cutscene that’s so audacious yet so consciously tongue-in-cheek that it earns my second big laugh of the session, a section of which you can watch below (although a dolphin-assisted Cloud attack still places second to the sight of Red XIII riding a Chocobo for my favorite moment of the hands-on).

The two-part demo is a captivating slice of what we can expect come February 29. With new embellishments to the combat system, the visual splendor of a reimagined world beyond Midgar already on display thanks to the power of PS5 and particularly juicy moments teased in this second act of the game’s story, Final Fantasy VII Rebirth is looking very promising indeed.

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