Final Fantasy VII Rebirth Final Preview - Square has figured out open world exploration again

Almost four years ago, the Final Fantasy VII Remake was released at long last, delighting many fans and critics alike. Speaking for myself, I found it better than it had any right to be - a game so highly requested by fans for so long, with so much hype and expectations on its shoulders - exceeding my expectations in nearly every single way. Now, in just a few short weeks, the second part of the trilogy that Remake began releases, and recently, I had to check out a new preview of the game that includes Nibeliheim, Kalm, and the large open area known as The Grasslands. My initial takeaway was that Square may have finally figured out how to do open-world exploration right in a modern Final Fantasy game.

As we are so close to the release, I’m going to refrain from discussing story beats, cinematics I saw, or any potential changes from the original Final Fantasy VII narrative. Instead, this preview will focus on my takeaways from Square Enix’s approach in Rebirth with their large open spaces. All I will say - and this should really be no surprise - is that the visuals and cinematics on display, much like its predecessor, are bombastic, exciting, and striking to watch. 

Even early on, the development team has been quite vocal about the inclusion of massive areas that you will be able to explore during your time in Final Fantasy VII Rebirth, and after my time in the Grasslands - the first of these areas - I can definitely say they are impressive. Even since Final Fantasy XV, when they began to attempt the open areas again, Square has had a bit of a rocky road when it comes to implementing them. The open fields you have been able to explore, even in last year’s Final Fantasy XVI, could feel empty or lacking in things to do - a concern I brought with me to the Rebirth preview. It turned out it looks like I have nothing to worry about.

The Grasslands is the sprawling area that is positioned between Kalm and Junon and has been featured in previous Rebirth trailers. It includes memorable locations like the Chocobo Farm and the swamps where you encounter the fearsome Midgar Zolom, along with many others. The videos and trailers available don’t do justice to how sprawling it all feels - but Rebirth gets it right where the previous attempts have stumbled - the GrassLands feels like a living place with a whole lot to do in it. 

When you first enter the area, a majority of your map is covered in fog that shrouds features and places of interest. It isn’t long until you are met by everyone’s favorite little science boy from Remake, Chadley, who provides the team with a handy new device, the CHAD. This little gun-like gizmo will allow the party to activate nearby towers (that are totally not Ubisoft’s radio towers) that will reveal large areas of the map and mark points to check out. Activating the towers and completing the requests on your map will provide you points that can be redeemed for special materia and other goodies - such as combo materia like Fire/Ice materia that let you cast both using only a single slot.

During my few hours in the Grasslands, as I explored those spots that Chadley pointed out, I felt as though I was constantly discovering new, different things that he didn’t tell me about - quests, homesteads, special monsters, resources to craft with, and the list goes on. The whole time, it seemed that I was never more than just a few minutes away from chancing upon something cool. The inspiration the devs have taken from The Witcher and Horizon is clear, and the lessons they learned seem to have been taken to heart for the better.

Perhaps the part that surprised and enamored me the most during my time in the Grasslands was how the team has incorporated spots that flesh out the lore of the world at large. The two main points I found - lifesprings and summon crystals - present you with information and enrich the land of Gaia even more. The life springs, small grottos of liquid and crystalized lifestream provide you with specific information on the cities, villages, and general history of the area in which they are found. They are outlets where the memory of the planet can speak directly to you. 

Summon crystals really have my mouth watering, though. These ruined little monuments are each tied to a specific summon, with each one revealing brand new history and details surrounding their patron deity. In the demo I played, the only crystal that I found were those dedicated to Titan - a legacy earth-based summon, around since the Famicom entries - that spoke about how the citizens revered the summoned creature and how it shaped the surrounding lands. These crystals served additional functions as the more you find, the more you discover the “weaknesses” of Titan, allowing you to fight Chadley’s digital recreation of the creature with reduced stats, making it easier to earn their materia. Challenge chasers don’t need to worry, however, as you can choose whether or not to fight the weaker version of Titan when you challenge it, or how weakened you want him to be.

Traveling around this wide-open area also is pretty painless, too. Every tower, outcropping of buildings, benches, and interesting places you find, you can bet that you will be able to fast travel there once you’ve found them. Thanks to the PlayStation 5’s magic hard drive, these continent-spanning jumps happen almost instantaneously, a feat that still impresses me three and half years after the system’s launch. If huffing it on foot is more your speed, then you are welcome to take that approach too - all with not a loading screen in sight. Of course, you will also have your fine-feathered Choco-friend to speed things up a bit if you so choose as well.

If this all seems like a lot, then you would be right. Perhaps it was because of the short window of time I had to play, but Final Fantasy VII Rebirth has an almost intimidating amount of things you can find and do. I can easily see myself caught in a loop of “oo, what’s that” distraction paralysis when I play the final release, requiring a strong constitution to continue on the main quest. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, quite the opposite, in fact; it just was something I wasn’t expecting from a Final Fantasy open world in 2024. 

At the time of writing this, we still don’t know how many large open zones like this we are going to have in the final game. We know that the whole world is supposedly explorable, and with three main continents (four if you count Wutai’s area), then perhaps three or four of these explorable areas is a reasonable guess. With how impressed I came away with the first zone, I can only imagine how the others will be. Luckily,  we don’t have a long wait ahead of us to find out, and the big question will be if the lessons learned with Rebirth will be applied to future games going forward. Final Fantasy VII Rebirth launches on the PlayStation 5 on February 29.