Square Enix's disgustingly cute World of Final Fantasy finally launches worldwide this week, and many are still unsure of what to make of this game. The disgustingly cute and mesmerizing character art has taken the spotlight, becoming the most obvious selling point of the package so far.
Some like it, some don't. I'm a huge fan of the chibi art style Square Enix has chosen here, but I'm also a big weirdo.
However, those dismissing the game because it is too cute or because it "doesn't look like a real Final Fantasy game" are doing themselves a huge disservice. Beneath its candy crusted exterior, you might be shocked to find out that World of Final Fantasy is actually one of the deepest and most satisfying games that the franchise has seen in a decade.
This is no mere tribute game. World of Final Fantasy surpasses all standards and baggage that a normal tribute game has slapped on it, and it is actually one of the best video games released so far in 2016!
Plus, it's a really solid Pokémon clone too!
Chibi is the only way to be
Despite building it up to be so much more, at its heart, World of Final Fantasy is a tribute game. The game shows nothing but love and respect towards 30 years of history, lore, and iconic imagery, and it does so with a brilliant presentation.
Yes, the chibi graphics might now be for everyone, but even the coldest-hearted of Square Enix fans will melt at the first sight of the adorable Yuna, voiced by Hedy Burress once again, I believe. It just wouldn't be Yuna without that voice.
As more and more iconic characters and monsters start to trickle in, Final Fantasy fans will start to feel at home. Edgar from Final Fantasy VI turns on the lady charm, Cloud and Squall from Final Fantasy VII and VIII always look ready to duke it out. Terra, Rikku, Celes, Tifa, many of your favorites return to the spotlight years after their original appearance, and your only regret in meeting so many of them is that Square Enix couldn't make even more!
A cactuar drives the train throughout the countryside, a whacko lady dressed as a Chocobo runs the item shop, and a Tonberry is stationed as the coliseum receptionist. Chocobos, Moogles, Black and White mages, and even the different locations and their background music all just click into a big celebration of Final Fantasy.
So if the world and all of its inhabitants bleed Final Fantasy history, then what about the original content? What should those looking for a new experience hope to find in the game's story?
Well, the story itself isn't exactly the best in the series. The biggest miracle of them all is that World of Final Fantasy didn't horribly mess up the two leading twins and actually made them enjoyable. Laan, the brother, is a typical bozo and loves to spout out puns for cheap laughs, and his sister, Reynn, shakes her head at his idiocy with a self-imposed sense of maturity. The two leading siblings aren't overly original, but Square Enix wrote two solid if unimpressive characters for this tale.
They are annoying but in an endearing kind of way, but that's all this game requires them to be. The story of finding their lost memories and bringing this magical realm back to an age of peace takes a back seat to all the Final Fantasy fanservice going on here. They're there just enough to give your adventure some context, but they never get in the way.
Perfect balance! Asking for more would make this "their" game, and it very clearly isn't. This game belongs to all of the classic Final Fantasy characters and monsters who will join you along the way!
Chocobo! I choose you! It's super effective!
When I say this game is a Pokémon-clone, what I mean is that it rips its main mechanic straight from Nintendo's popular series. Laan and Reynn's best method of combat is to travel the world, seeking out classic Final Fantasy monsters and capturing them in prisms. They train them through combat, level up their skills and abilities, and call upon them to do battle with other monsters in times of need.
If that's not Pokémon, I don't know what it is. Relax. World of Final Fantasy has more than just different monsters to distance itself from its obvious source of inspiration.
For one, it's a linear quest, taking place primarily in dungeons and on missions. Pokémon's free-roaming nature doesn't kick in until much later in the game. Our two heroes and their monsters, called Mirages, will often find an objective at the end of a tunnel or a boss waiting at the top of an enemy base, and it'll be their job to complete the objective and collect new Mirages along the way.
There are no towns in the traditional Final Fantasy sense because all items, subquests, and interaction with the game's systems occur in a central hub town. There are no gyms, no item shops or inns, or anything other than NPCs to talk to if they stumble across a new kingdom.
The way Mirages are used in battle also differs from Pokémon in that they stack upon the heroes rather than battle for them. Like any JRPG character, the twins and the monsters gain levels as they fight, and they gain strength with each advancement. World of Final Fantasy lets players pile monsters onto one another through a system called the "stack," holding a maximum of three at a time.
Monsters fall into three main groups: small, medium, and large, and from there, the stack can be built. When in chibi-form, the two characters are considered "medium" sized, and they can include a large and a small monster on their stack. The twins can also switch into a larger form, which counts them as a large monster. Small and medium monsters stack on top of their heads.
Each monster adds to the stack its statistics and its abilities, meaning that they act as a single unit in combat and boost their power based on how they work together. Combining two fire monsters could mean the stack has a stronger affinity to fire magic and maybe even more powerful spells! Physical monsters or monsters who use swords can combine to create slash attacks. World of Final Fantasy has a nearly infinite level of combinations and stacks to experiment with, so get out there and try.
Our heroes carry no weapons or armor, either, meaning the only changes to their stats come from the power of their stack.
Sometimes in battle, stacks can also fall apart after a huge hit or be disassembled by the player at will. In these situations, the three members of the stack can either choose to pile back onto one another or ditch out smaller bits of pain as three separate and weaker characters. It might seem counter-intuitive to do this, but catching some monsters require more than just weakening them and throwing a ball their way.
Here's another difference from Pokémon: specific objectives to catch difference monsters. Take, for example, an ice monster. A classic Final Fantasy spell called Libra allows players to see the objectives to catch this one, and you might see it needs to be weakened with a single fire hit. The stack launches its weakest fire ability, but even that proves to be too strong because the ice monster takes double damage from fire. Oops.
Instead, the best strategy is to disassemble the stack, use a fire monster to hit it with a weaker fire attack, and boom! You've met the objective without killing it! And this is just the most basic example. Later in the game, you'll come across some pretty challenging requirements for catching a monster.
Level 'em up!
And then there is leveling up and, yes, evolution which is also much deeper than Pokémon. Which each level gained, monsters will gather SP, and this SP can be used on a "Mirage board" to learn new skills. It's basically a skill tree that lets players evolve the Mirages with a bit more freedom.
Do you pick the new ability, defense boost, or attack boost this level-up? Do you save your SP for a stronger one, or do you pick the weak one and start saving again? Do you master the entire board, or do you evolve your mirage early into a more powerful monster? The freedom allowed by World of Final Fantasy's leveling system is much deeper than the competition.
Later in the game, World of Final Fantasy adds summon monsters in the form of the classic Final Fantasy characters, and that's where the nostalgia starts to kick in. The game is also created to be a streamlined as possible. Warps back to the hub town can be found everywhere, and all of the complicated RPG pieces can be found in this single area: sub-quests, boss fights, coliseums, Mirage management, you name it.
A door home is always close by.
Battles fly by with a fast-forward option, and unless you're trying to meet objectives to catch one of the Mirages, it can fly even faster with the help of an auto-battle option with a tap of the DualShock 4's touchpad. Very convenient for blazing through pointless fights.
Dungeons, too, provide reasons to go back ,whether it is a super boss who needs to be taken out once you get to a higher level or an elemental barrier blocking your way to treasure chests.
Square Enix has another winner of a spin-off this year
Like Dragon Quest Builders before it, World of Final Fantasy is a game that can stand up to the pedigree of quality that its main series is known for. This is just as deep, if not deeper, than a good many mainline Final Fantasy games, and fans of all ages will find something here.
Whether it is the deep monster collecting system, the jokes and ridiculous fan-service, or even just playing a good, ol' fashioned, JRPG on a console, World of Final Fantasy should be on every wish list this holiday season.
It's a charming game with fun characters, solid voice acting, brilliantly quirky and cute art design, and a sense that this could be a real Final Fantasy title, not just a tribute.
My only question at this point is whether you should buy it for the PlayStation 4 or PS Vita. The game does support cross-saves, so naturally, I think you should pick up both, or at least one now and one when it goes on sale down the road. The PlayStation 4 obviously has the better performance of the two, but my guess is, since I haven't played the Vita build yet, is that it should feel more at home on a handheld console.
After all, it is a Pokémon game at heart. You'll want to take it everywhere with you!
Disclaimer: We were provided a review copy of World of Final Fantasy for the PlayStation 4 by Square Enix.