Final Fantasy XV will come out in about a month, and aims to usher the venerable old Japanese role-playing game (JRPG) series into a whole new era. It's fitting, then, that before we plunge headfirst into the future, we take a moment to breathe and look back on where the franchise has gone before. World of Final Fantasy is a simple, approachable, easygoing spin-off of the long-running franchise that's ostensibly for a young audience, but preteen gamers may understand only half of the game's appeal.
In addition to being a well-made, colorful, consistently fun title, World of Final Fantasy (PS4, PS Vita; $60) is a love letter to the series so far. If Final Fantasy XV is a bold push into the unexplored frontier, World of Final Fantasy is the last comforting campfire story the night before. It's nothing you haven't seen before — but that's kind of the point.
World of Final Fantasy channels a little something from Final Fantasy, a little something from Pokémon and a little something from Jenga. In this game, you'll take control of Lann and Reynn, teenage twins who discover that they are Mirage Keepers. This means that they can control "mirages," a fancy name for the monsters they encounter on their travels. As such, World of Final Fantasy is all about assembling a team of monsters to complement the twins as they journey across the world and engage in strategic, turn-based battles.
Here's the twist, though: You don't just collect monsters (or "imprism" them, in the game's terminology) and hang back while they do all the fighting, as in Pokémon. Nor do you incorporate them as distinct party members, as in Final Fantasy XIII-2. Instead, as you capture monsters, you'll physically stack them on top of your shoulders, three characters high.
In their default forms, Lann and Reynn count as "large" creatures. As such, a medium creature can sit on their shoulders, while a small creature could take the top spot. To make things even more complicated, the twins can also transition into a cartoonish "chibi" (highly stylized, "cute," anime-inspired) form that reduces them to medium-size creatures — and you have to have setups for both the large and medium teens ready to go.
It sounds complicated, but in practice, the game introduces systems slowly, and it's pretty sensible once you get the hang of it. "Stacking" three characters together combines their hit points and magic; it can even empower spells, if two characters know the same magic. Get hit too many times in a row, and your characters will topple, although you can prevent this by manually unstacking them.
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Stacked characters are strong and durable but are prone to toppling; unstacked characters are weaker but have nowhere to fall. It's a mild bit of strategy, but it makes a surprising amount of logical sense for a game in which you'll have a bird sitting on a fox's shoulders, and the fox itself sitting on a boy's shoulders, all fighting together and acting as though that were normal.
Aside from the unusual stacking mechanics, the gameplay is pretty straightforward. Lann and Reynn travel from dungeon to dungeon and from town to town, solving problems, confronting fauna and connecting the dots in a somewhat convoluted fantasy plot involving time travel and racial strife. Battles are very traditional Final Fantasy fare; wait for your turn, take an action and let the enemy do the same. It was a good system back in Final Fantasy IV, and it still works, more than two decades later.
Leveling up is an interesting process, too, since Lann and Reynn don't gain any new abilities as they gain levels. Instead, they're dependent on the stacked monsters. Because monsters have both combat abilities and abilities that affect the world map (melting ice, finding hidden items, smashing large rocks, etc.), managing your party can be a delicate balancing act between exploration and combat efficiency.
Catching monsters and determining optimal stacks add a bit of strategy for gamers who enjoy that kind of thing, but the difficulty curve is pretty mild. World of Final Fantasy is clearly aimed at the 10-13 crowd, and while it's not insultingly easy, it works well as an introduction to the wide world of JRPGs. Attacking, healing, collecting new monsters assiduously and discovering enemy weaknesses to exploit will take you most of the way through the title.
On the other hand, the game goes out of its way to avoid falling into an explore a dungeon - visit a town - explore a dungeon rut. You can undertake optional missions throughout the game to fight tougher monsters (and reap better rewards), collect familiar Final Fantasy characters to summon in battle and help said characters on their often comical side quests. Given that so many JRPGs tend to save all of the optional content for the late part of the game, the drip feed of rewarding side stories in World of Final Fantasy is consistently fun.
Reynn and Lann, teenage twins who live in the peaceful city of Nine Wood Hills, awaken one day to find that time has stopped around them — and, what's more, they have no idea how long it's been that way. A mysterious woman named Enna Kros informs them that they are Mirage Keepers, charged with managing the world's monsters. By reclaiming their ancestral duties, the twins may be able to find their memories and, along the way, save a fantasy world known as Grymoire from a warlike king.
As stated above, World of Final Fantasy is definitely courting a younger audience than some of the more recent Final Fantasy titles. I found Reynn and Lann incredibly grating at first, but I think preteen players might empathize with their eagerness and uncertainty, and appreciate their stupid, stupid puns. They grew on me, at any rate, and it was fun to have characters from previous Final Fantasy titles show up on a regular basis.
However, this review would not be complete if I neglected to mention Tama, a small vulpine companion who acts as the twins' guide on their adventures. With her high-pitched, shrill voice; her habit of spouting mounds of exposition; and her cute-then-obnoxious-then-insufferable habit of putting "the" before words where they don't the-belong, she singlehandedly made me wish the game gave me the ability to mute specific characters.
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Although the story covers some pretty standard JRPG territory, it ultimately carries itself with enough conviction and charm to forgive that lack of innovation. I pretty much always knew what was going to happen next in the story — but in the way I would anticipate the next page of a beloved book. I just wish the cutscenes were a little shorter; especially early on, I was worried my controller was going to switch off from inactivity in between battles.
Sound and Graphics
Despite my rant about Tama, I have nothing against her voice actress, Lisa Kay Jennings, who did the best job possible with the material. Likewise, Josh Keaton brings the same enthusiasm and earnestness to Lann as he did to Spider-Man back in the CW's animated series, and Amanda Leighton absolutely sells Reynn as a know-it-all older (by 10 minutes) sister.
The music, too, is a pleasant throwback to earlier Final Fantasy themes, with repeated motifs ranging from the very first Final Fantasy all the way to Final Fantasy X and beyond. The original tunes for battle and exploration are also catchy, but they're not quite as hummable as the classic themes.
The graphics present an intriguing mix of Kingdom Hearts-style characters for important cutscenes and the chibi aesthetic for townsfolk and characters from earlier Final Fantasy games. All of the visuals are clean and colorful, and it's fascinating to see what the very first Final Fantasy might have looked like if it had the PS4's processing power behind it. There's nothing tremendously impressive from a graphical standpoint, but everything does look pretty and consistent.
At first, I didn't expect much from World of Final Fantasy, and I really didn't know what to make of its weird stacking mechanic. Was it something to tide fans over until Final Fantasy XV? A game to keep kids busy while their parents and elder siblings played XV? A throwback to "classic" Final Fantasies, free from the baggage of newer titles?
World of Final Fantasy is a little bit of all of those things, and yet it's very much its own entity as well. The game combines an addictive monster-hunting element with a solid battle system, and then wraps the whole thing up in a comfortable story and pretty visuals. The game could have been deeper, more inventive or more ambitious, but that doesn't seem to have been the developers' intention.
Kids will enjoy World of Final Fantasy. Adults who grew up with the series will enjoy World of Final Fantasy. And given the game's length, they'll probably enjoy it until just about the point when Final Fantasy XV comes out.
I just wish I could say whether they'll enjoy Tama.