Also on: PS Vita
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Tose, Square Enix Business Division 3
ESRB: E – Everyone
Just before the release of the titanic Final Fantasy XV, Square has taken preemptive measures to reminisce with fans by way of World of Final Fantasy– an adorable trip down memory lane which puts a twist on turn-based combat. Provided you're a Final Fantasy fan, this sounds like a pretty good deal. And what could go wrong? As it turns out, not too much does, but for all the high points, World of Final Fantasy seems to struggle with a balance between new ideas and old flames.
In a game that opens up feeling more like Kingdom Hearts than Final Fantasy, players are introduced to fraternal twins, Lann and Reyn, who quickly discover their world frozen in time and devoid of people. In what becomes the hub world of Nine Wood Hills, we begin the twins' story with lingering questions about their past (shrouded by amnesia), and aided by the a all-powerful Enna Kros, a self-proclaimed deity who aims to help restore their memories.
And there's a fox on your head. Well not your head, but Lann, your head. Yep, been there all morning. Cute, white, fox-like, goes by Tama. Probably something to do with stacking, or mirages, or the different worlds beyond an inter-dimensional gate, or the truth about Lann and Reyn's mother. Sounds complicated? You'll figure it out, just rest assured that there's a good amount of ground to cover with World of Final Fantasy's story. Only tradeoff is your level of familiarity with the series, as I've only played a select few mainline games and am positive I missed out on some rewarding references.
That's what we're here for, though. There's literally Final Fantasy everywhere, and hardcore fans are better served than newcomers to the bobbing and weaving of heroes from series' past. It's an obvious conclusion, but one worth noting for whether new folks will be totally left in the dark on all the fan service. Square Enix has basically done a commendable job of being inclusive in this regard; it's definitely not at the level of trying to play Persona Q without having played 3 and 4.
World of Final Fantasy's problems lie not its narrative, but in an effort to resuscitate a traditional turn-based combat system with the stacking mechanic. This stab at invention produces a generally positive result which is held back by an early plateau in its abilities — a long way of saying the novelty wears off.
Conceptually, the universe is drawn around a vertical layout, with NPCs stacking animals, things, and other creatures on or under them. It's adorable, and compliments an aesthetic which is vertically dense. The same goes for the two-party member system, in which the twins assume a normal (Jiant) or chibi (Lilikin) form upon which, or within (depending on their size), are stacked two other Mirages — the game's form of familiars.
Stacks are a visually simple concept to understand, but their composition is of a small, medium, and large-sized element which creates what could be best understood as a build. Depending on the Mirages used, a stack will inherit both the strengths and elemental weaknesses of its composition — a two-way street that goes for enemies, as well, who yes, can also stack. Stacks can also be toppled, fracturing the sum of their parts into more vulnerable individual party members. Again, a two-way street for enemies, but players may at times choose to manually unstack in order to avoid having a weakness exploited against a whole formation.
The interplay between stacking, unstacking, and the strategy of things starts off on a strong foot, but despite available strategies, most tactics fall by the wayside of a rock-paper-scissors outwitting of elemental weaknesses. It's certainly dismissive to be putting new ideas in the same box they're trying to escape, but World of Final Fantasy's age-old mechanics are easily noticed in a way that feels more ousted than unearthed.
In terms of managing stacks and the Mirages within them, the game utilizes a blend of Pokemon and FFX's sphere grid. When meeting required circumstances in battle (such as using physical attacks, healing abilities, etc.), a Mirage becomes vulnerable to capture, a Prismtunity as the game puts it, where if successful is added to the arsenal of Mirages which players can use in stacks. Non-organic, mechanical Mirages require a different system of capture, but with all roads leading to Rome. It's nice to have a bit of strategy beyond pummeling Mirages into a weakened state, adding a layer of personality to what could have been a quickly repetitive part of a game whose battles quickly begin to feel repetitive.
That goes doubly for a game who has toggles for its Active Time Battle system, facilitating quicker menu navigation by hot-mapping moves to face buttons, outfitted in palettes selectable with the left joystick, and complete with the ability to fast forward and even automate combat. These systems find themselves perfectly at home in games like Shin Megami Tensei, but those are also titles with a great deal of sophistication to their combat systems, whereas World of Final Fantasy finds itself short of new ideas early enough that its best solution is to get it over with quicker. It's a welcome accommodation, but again, shortchanges its new ideas with an assumption that players will be bored with what they're given.
Leveling up Mirages will be immediately familiar to those who remember the Sphere Grid of FFFX, albeit a more simplified version due to the nature of how often you'll be encountering and capturing new Mirages. Aside from filling out upgrades to reach new Mirage forms, World of Final Fantasy has an issue with giving players reason to commit to any specific Mirage.
Save for a few odd jobs that a required Mirage might perform in the game's overworld, there's a sense of these creatures as being superfluous — not to mention distributed in a manner bordering on overly scripted. A useful flying Mirage appearing in an area where paths require flight is not a coincidence, but almost expected with area-specific Mirages readily available to assist in environmental and combat exploitations. While this isn't a design sin, a game's pacing should be less transparent if it hopes to remain engaging.
World of Final Fantasy also suffers from linearity in its town design, causing the game to feel more like a breakneck shuttling through vertical locales. Due to the condensed nature of the game's art direction, Lilikin forms aren't the only thing in this game that feel fun-sized — its scope is altogether narrowed, from side quests, challenges, and redundancy in Mirage variety. While this keeps things moving at a steady clip, I'd have liked to do a bit more exploring in a game with the word "World" in its title.
I did appreciate the overall tone and structure of World of Final Fantasy. The voice acting is great, and cutscenes meet the Square seal of quality we've come to know in other mainline releases. Players are even treated to some cute anime cutscenes sprinkled about, a nice bit of variety from the traditional ones we know. Voice acting is solid, and the cast has an endearing interplay to carry along story beats in a way that understands its characters.
It's also worth mentioning that the soundtrack is a really wonderful part of World of Final Fantasy. It's soothing, well-composed, and on PS4 really comes through with a sense of small, yet earned grandeur. Of all the things World of Final Fantasy has to be proud of, its presentation should be at the top of the list. For a series spinoff, it's host to a great deal more effort than we usually see in such a game.
Fans of Final Fantasy will undoubtedly find themselves happy with World of Final Fantasy, despite its shortcomings in combat and scope. Lacking a full frame of reference on the series myself, I had no trouble settling in for a session of gameplay, due to its accessibility and general momentum as an RPG — regardless of the Final Fantasy heritage. With a campaign of about 35 hours, players hoping for a game that doles out immediate gratification and Final Fantasy comfort food can look no further than World of Final Fantasy, but anyone hoping for a more substantial title won't be missing out if they pass on this one.