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Final Fantasy VII Rebirth’s Ending Doesn’t Earn The Benefit Of The Doubt

Screenshot: Square Enix / Claire Jackson / Kotaku
Screenshot: Square Enix / Claire Jackson / Kotaku

I’ve had more than a month to consider Final Fantasy VII Rebirth’s ending, and it’s not often that my feelings about something get worse with each passing day. Yet, here I am, thinking about how Square Enix has chosen to cap off the middle section of its planned Remake trilogy, and I’m even more puzzled by how hard Rebirth commits to being non-commital in its eleventh hour. I’m sympathetic to the idea that this is not the ending to the story, but Rebirth feels less like a proper springboard for a new conclusion and more like buyer’s remorse on what could have been a bolder cliffhanger.

We’ve already discussed Rebirth’s ending here at Kotaku, and if you want a more charitable read on its final hours, you can check out Claire Jackson’s explainer. You can also read Digital Trends’ piece in defense of the ending, in which Giovanni Colantonio also has a pretty positive reading on it while acknowledging that it’s polarizing. But for me, Rebirth’s failings come less from its inability to weave that exposition naturally into its own narrative but from what feels like a deliberately vague, thematically derailed conclusion. It feels as Jesse Vitelli put in his review on Shacknews, written in pencil so it doesn’t have to commit to anything it can’t erase.

Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth spoilers follow.

What happens in Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth’s ending? It’s complicated

To ensure everyone’s on the same page, let’s break down what actually happens at the end of Rebirth. Well, as best we can, considering its intentionally vague presentation. Big baddy Sephiroth explains to our brooding, hallucinating protagonist, Cloud Strife, that the multiverse exists and that he is trying to make these different worlds converge. Individual continuities are held together by the ghost-like entities called Whispers, which attempt to keep everyone from going off-script. Remake’s ending involves the defeat of the Whisper Harbinger, which implies that the group should now be able to defy fate. But in Rebirth, it’s suggested that the Whispers are not just the protectors of fate, but beings that are susceptible to outside influence from people like Sephiroth. This is the beginning of fundamental shifts in the Remake trilogy’s themes—the question then becomes, is Rebirth really reckoning with new reveals and expanding upon its own ideas, or is it simply doing a complete thematic pivot, choosing the spectacle of the multiverse over an introspective examination of predeterminism?

That’s what I’m wrestling with. Rebirth’s ending doesn’t inspire confidence that the tracks aren’t being built while the train is barreling toward its destination. And that inconsistency in theme is what makes Rebirth’s ending suspect and ultimately a massive letdown to me.

Screenshot: Square Enix / Claire Jackson / Kotaku
Screenshot: Square Enix / Claire Jackson / Kotaku

Remake suggested that Cloud and all his friends may not reach the same bittersweet conclusion they did in the original Final Fantasy 7—they may take a different path. Yet Rebirth brings them right back to where they would have been had the Whispers never been introduced. After Sephiroth tries to pitch Cloud on being his multiversal partner in crime, things start to play out like they did in 1997. In the Forgotten Capital, Aerith, the party’s mage, flower girl, and the sole survivor of the Cetra race, prays to use the Holy spell and stop Sephiroth’s Meteor spell from destroying the world and allowing him to ascend to godhood.

Cloud, controlled by Sephiroth, raises his sword to strike Aerith down, while being held back by the Whispers as he resists his foe’s influence. Though he nearly brings down his blade, he is able to hold himself back long enough for Sephiroth to (as he did nearly 30 years ago) descend from above with his own sword in hand. In the original Final Fantasy 7, his blade pierces through Aerith’s abdomen, killing her in one of the most devastating deaths in video games. In Rebirth, Cloud manages to regain control of his body and block the attack with his own sword.

At first, this seems like the moment Remake was leading us to toward. Fate has been defied and Rebirth has followed through on Square Enix’s bold promise of new possibilities for Cloud and company, rewriting a historic moment in Final Fantasy history. When I heard that Final Fantasy 7’s story might be different, I immediately thought of Aerith’s fate, recalling how many hoaxes and schoolyard rumors there were about possibly saving her if you did X, Y, or Z in your playthrough. None of those ever came to fruition, but Rebirth gave us a chance to examine the hypothetical. And for a moment, when you see Sephiroth’s sword hit the ground and not Aerith, you think a brand new world of possibilities has opened…until blood starts spilling from a wound we never see.

Screenshot: Square Enix / Claire Jackson / Kotaku
Screenshot: Square Enix / Claire Jackson / Kotaku

Rebirth’s first problem is in its deliberately misleading storyboarding. Square Enix knows that every player who knows what’s coming in the Forgotten Capital is expecting something divergent here. The fake-out only serves the purpose of dangling hope in front of a player to take it away. But what it shows next is where it unveils its actual intentions: to illustrate that there is a multiverse of possibilities in which Aerith could survive. Fate could be defied, but those possibilities are happening somewhere else—not in the game world in which we spent 30 to 100 hours traveling towards this conclusion.

The entire emotional weight of Aerith’s death is obscured and confused during Rebirth’s final hours as the game rapidly oscillates between visions of different continuities in which she survives. Cloud exists in the middle of the multiverse, so he sees multiple outcomes unfold at once, signified by Aerith’s blood on her clothes, hands, and Sephiroth’s sword which disappear and reappear as the multiverse collapses in on itself.

The vignette is only complicated further when Aerith shows up in the final boss fight between Cloud and Sephiroth. The back and forth between whether or not Aerith survives in the final hours is an example of Rebirth’s inability to commit. But ultimately, after the fight is over, we see two versions of Aerith’s fate play out. One, is the Remake continuity, where Tifa, Barret, and the others stand over her body. She has died in the world we’ve inhabited for two games now. Cloud, meanwhile, walks over to her in a different continuity and is able to wake her up before returning home.

Rebirth distorts Remake’s ending into something less compelling

Rebirth’s big reveal is that Cloud exists in some kind of multiverse state and is able to communicate with and see Aerith where the rest of her friends can’t. He’s the only person who can see their friend as she walks around the party who are all grieving her death. He also is the only person who can see the tear in the sky, which signifies that the multiverse is falling apart at the seams. But the game’s last moments are all so intentionally disorienting that it’s robbed of any emotional weight. As I’ve peeled back the layers with other players in the past few weeks, what I’ve found underneath is altogether cowardly compared to what Remake proclaimed was possible.

Jackson Tyler at Paste Magazine perfectly summed up the feelings I had when I finished Rebirth. As they write, Rebirth is so misguided in its attempts to both be faithful to the source material and be something entirely new that it ends up a mess of contradictions. Not only is the finale determined to never commit to an idea that can be concretely explained with evidence, but it also raises new questions that are far less compelling than the succinct thematic thrust of Remake: Is our fate written in the stars, or are there ways to overcome the inevitable track of our lives? There aren’t many video games better equipped to explore that than a Final Fantasy 7 retelling. Instead, we get a cop-out where Rebirth kills Aerith but finds ways to keep her around anyway.

Screenshot: Square Enix / Claire Jackson / Kotaku
Screenshot: Square Enix / Claire Jackson / Kotaku

Thematic consistency is a bare minimum pillar of storytelling and Rebirth makes a Star Wars sequel-level call to forgo that in favor of trickery and confusion. This doesn’t feel like a plot twist, it feels like retreating to an imagined safety in which it doesn’t have to envision a Final Fantasy 7 story where more radical changes happen. What if Cloud had died instead of Aerith? Could Crisis Core protagonist Zack Fair jump through the multiverse to take on the mantle of the party’s leader? Aerith didn’t even need to survive for me to be intrigued, but what if anything was materially different from how it was in 1997? Final Fantasy 7 Remake asked this question, and Rebirth seems so terrified of the answer that it twists itself in knots, trying to come up with a way to pass the buck to a different side of the multiverse.

I say all of this, and there’s a perfectly reasonable chance that a third game circles back to the ideas Remake proposed in 2020. But to that, I say, why would I ever give this trilogy that benefit of the doubt again? Even when I wasn’t sure Square Enix could pull off a metatextual remake narrative similar to the Evangelion Rebuilds or Scott Pilgrim Takes Off), I was still open to the idea. But now that it’s taken such an overt 180, why should I trust it to have any consistency moving forward?

This is the most maddening result of the deliberately ambiguous way Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth’s ending plays out. It invites speculation, and that uncertainty is the perfect shield for criticisms of its shortcomings. It pivots away from defying fate, but it could be leading into some other climax or character arc we don’t know about yet, so we should wait and see before casting judgment, right? The third game can and likely will expand upon the countless hypotheticals being tossed around the internet. But that doesn’t make up forRebirth’s disregard for what Remake boldly proclaimed was possible.

Those are interesting questions, and there’s excitement in theory-crafting, but all of us, whether we like the ending or not, are operating on assumptions the game refuses to clarify or engage with. By the time the third and final game in this trilogy is out, much of our speculation about what Rebirth actually meant in the end will be debunked or supported. Right now, I’m not willing to give the ending flowers for what it might lead to when Remake’s thematic thrust has been tossed out into the void of the multiverse. The most radical thing Rebirth could have done was follow through, and in search of a disorienting cliffhanger, it couldn’t even manage that.

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