header is screenshot from Final Fantasy VII Rebirth
Too-Open World
Reid McCarter

This article discusses plot details from throughout Final Fantasy VII Rebirth.

Here’s the big question, the one that insists upon an answer the longer you spend playing Final Fantasy VII Rebirth: Why is it an open world game? There are uninteresting market-focused responses to this, of course. The game, especially as the middle installment of a trilogy, needs to justify its existence as a standalone commercial product. It needs to show itself as worth the list price of a modern, big-budget game, and that means, given the state of things, it needs to be long and filled with an immense variety of stuff to do.

But, as with everything that accompanies videogames’ current trend of lavish remakes, the heart of the question, beyond the financial impetus, is what we’re doing with each new release. Why should these exercises in reconstruction keep coming out in the first place, and why do they take the shape they do when reinterpreted?

Rebirth’s open world is particularly thorny because it seems to justify and reject the validity of its design almost equally, and sometimes within the same few hours playing it. At it best, the format allows for the sort of diversions that enrich the world presented in the original 1997 game, expanding upon a stretch of its source material that moved beyond the urban confines of its Midgar opening and into the grassy fields, sun-drenched coasts, and swamps surrounding it.

The leisurely pace of an open world game allows for a better view of the different cultures that make up the game’s fictional continent as the characters trek across its expanse in pursuit of the villain Sephiroth+. They translate the intent of the big map that folds itself open after leaving Midgar in the original: showing the spread of malevolent energy corporation Shinra across the known world, showcasing the natural beauty of the environment and the ecosystems that stand to be destroyed through its greed. (Even if the player’s extractive relationship to this natural environment, which is less to be admired than plundered for experience points and items, takes on a different, more cynical form in Rebirth).

The extra space gives more room to flesh out characters and plot points glossed over in the original, too. Cloud, for instance, displays a worrying bloodlust at regular intervals—a sign of Sephiroth’s influence that leans more heavily into a largely subtextual element of the original, whereby masculine idealism is equated to martial prowess. The robot cat Cait Sith, an underdeveloped side character in ‘97, is given a depth of personality he lacked before through the many extra hours and scenes he has time to star in. The expanded run-time allows both of these arcs space to occur naturally over the span of a long journey. And, because the game gives itself so much time to meander, it can also devote an optional cutscene to more frivolous but texture-lending scenes like the finale of a card tournament where a (very familiar) talking dog in a soldier’s uniform and helmet takes centre stage to strike poses and do the moonwalk.

Elements like these show the benefits of a game stretching out over an immense playtime—of it expanding the proto-open world of its source material into a vast, activity-filled landscape in the modern style. More often (and less charitably), though, this same approach makes Rebirth maximalist to the point of exhaustion, a send-up of mainstream game trends without an examination of when or why they should be deployed. Its lengthy exploration segments spread its main plot dangerously thin, whipping the player’s attention from emotional character developments to tasks like, say, racing chocobos or playing a version of Rocket League that swaps cars for animals. In the process, any urgency there might be in tracking down Sephiroth is lost in service of offering more to do.

Yussef gets into the tired old contradictions of open world games that stress both the immediacy of saving the planet and the enjoyment that comes from meandering around completing side objectives in his review of Rebirth. Alongside this, it’s also worth noting that the characters themselves, and by extension, the game’s creators, seem aware of the problem. After certain story beats, the cast might argue among themselves about whether it’d be best to press on with their main mission or hang out and take on odd jobs. It’s a band-aid solution that highlights rather than lampshades a substantial problem.

Game audiences have long figured out ways to justify conflicts between plot and play, but Rebirth makes the fault harder to excuse. There’s no real consideration for what should and shouldn’t be included—no sense that pace was a factor in deciding how to structure the game. Toward Rebirth’s climax, in one particularly egregious example, a character explains that a special key is needed to access an important area just when it seems like the big finale is on its way. Then, with the wind taken out of the plot’s sails already, molasses is dolloped onto the narrative’s momentum once more when a forgettable, motorcycle-riding enemy appears to offer up a boss fight just minutes after the last prolonged combat encounter. Combined with the metatextual, reality-bending elements introduced to the plot to complicate the original’s storyline, it’s hard to feel as much as the game wants the player to feel when dramatic character beats do finally happen. (I wrote more about this in another article.)

The big issue, given the seesawing virtues of the game’s design, then, isn’t so much the open world as the material that fills it—material that’s plagued by an unwelcome sense that an unseen clock is being run out by Rebirth’s creators until it hits an arbitrary, high enough hour count. 2020’s Remake suffered similarly, dragging out sections that ought to have had a bit of urgency with lengthy, combat-filled levels and sluggish navigation puzzles. Rather than consider how this choice detracted from what could have been a punchy introduction to the remake project, Rebirth commits to it again and enlarges the issue exponentially.

In doing so, it makes a point applicable not just to itself but to the whole design ethos it belongs to. Not every game needs an open world, but, maybe as importantly, every open world has to confront the complications in pacing that its freedom in design offers. The component parts of a work have to move toward the same goal if cohesion—which Rebirth aims for in its storytelling—is the goal. The blonde homunculus Chadley and his desire to collect data from Cloud and friends’ climbing towers, fighting rare monsters, and snatching up items isn’t enough.

Even though Rebirth is a good time apart from its narrative—even though it features a combat system that’s hard to tire of, that makes even the most tedious or padded sections enjoyable enough on a moment-to-moment level—it’s too confused and lumpy to service the plot that it remembers to return to in fits and starts. It’s a game with an identity crisis as crippling as its protagonist’s, wanting both the lackadaisical wandering of an open world and the controlled pace of a more tightly directed experience without getting the most out of either approach.


Though this also gives Rebirth time to expand on locations like Cosmo Canyon, which, in this remake, is filled with New Age tourists using the location as a spiritual retreat modeled after faux indigenous practices. The game doesn’t comment much on this portrayal, presenting it straight-faced on one hand and endorsing the worst reading of its inclusion through shops evoking awful stereotypes, like Tiger Lily Armaments, on the other.


Reid McCarter is a writer and a co-editor of Bullet Points Monthly. His work has appeared at The AV ClubWiredGQPolygonKill ScreenPlayboyThe Washington PostPaste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER and Okay, Hero, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.