Looking at World of Final Fantasy, a game which brings all of the characters of the franchise together, it's easy to write it off as fan service. After all, Square Enix is infamous for cashing in on its avid fan base, spinning the franchise off in every conceivable direction. Thankfully, however, developer Tose has done an admirable job walking the fine line between creating fan service and an experience which stands on its own. The result is an adventure which, while not perfect, offers all the cameos, homages and allusions fans desire, without alienating players unfamiliar with every entry in the series.
In order to bring all of these worlds together, World of Final Fantasy opens with our protagonists, siblings Lann and Reynn, being transported into the world of Grymoire. Reminiscent of the Kingdom Hearts universe, Grymoire is a hodgepodge collision of characters and locations from the oeuvre of Final Fantasy. However, the defining feature of this new world is its art style: a distinct pastel aesthetic – again, reminiscent of Kingdom Hearts – and a world full of characters represented in the Chibi style. There is little rhyme or reason as to why these familiar characters are Chibi, but it is pretty bloody adorable.
Considering this fan service, I was surprised that the game presents a completely original narrative instead of borrowing beats directly from past games. That said, it is still a distinctly Final Fantasy story in its tone and pacing. Unfortunately, despite this, the story is the weakest aspect of World of Final Fantasy, introducing a mystery at the outset which never manages to create intrigue. This issue stems from an attempt to incorporate familiar figures and locations with an original story and cast. Legacy Final Fantasy characters such as Cloud, Lightning, and Titus are only peripheral actors within the story, but the game gives them far more emphasis than is usual for minor cast. This quickly causes the story to lose focus and become a mess of personalities.
In an attempt to negate this, Tose presents a nonchalant, comical tone. Outside of the rare dramatic moment, the game is full of slapstick comedy and cheesy jokes. Personally, I enjoyed the jokey tone, but it is easy to see how divisive it will be. This goes for some of the characters as well: for example, your speech-impeded sidekick Tama is sure to be beloved by some and loathed by others.
Fortunately, these story problems take up a comparatively small amount of time, with the bulk of the experience engaged in fantastic gameplay. As a homage to the series, it is fitting that WoFF uses the classic Active Time Battle (ATB) system. However, it introduces several new systems which makes battling feel both familiar and intriguingly fresh.
The primary of these new systems is mirage collecting and stacking. As in Pokemon titles, it is possible to collect the enemies you battle throughout the world and then level and evolve them. Here is where it gets strange though: each mirage has an assigned size, and parties are formed by stacking companions from largest to smallest on top of each other. You have to create two of these party arrangements for both Lann and Reynn, one in Chibi form (where they are in the middle of the stack) and one in normal form (where they are the bottom). Unfortunately, this dual party arrangement muddles the whole system considerably, making it very difficult to keep track of things like abilities. It’s a shame as well, because the system can be very charming, making you think tactically about which mirages to evolve and when. But in the end, the frustrations outweigh the benefits.
Outside of actually getting your party in order is the fun of applying your formations in battle. Combat has the old school turn-based flair, with a good mixture of quick one hit XP fodder and longer, harder battles in which you have to keenly manage healing and damage to be victorious. The other major draw is in the exploration, which balances puzzles and great map design to make every area a compelling challenge.
Similar to that in titles like Final Fantasy VII, the map is a series of interconnected linear nodes, which add enough branching paths to feel open while still guiding you smoothly through. The level design itself is consistently interesting, often introducing new elements with each area that keep traversal engaging. The design of the maps themselves is also compelling, each matching the visual style of different entries in the Final Fantasy franchise. Beyond paying homage, having each area be visually distinct is a great way of keeping the game interesting to look at.
All in all, World of Final Fantasy is more than just fan service. In many ways, it’s its own distinct entry into the franchise, which just happens to have characters and locations from past games. However, like all Final Fantasy games, it comes with its own collection of pros and cons – in this case, the world design and combat is great, but the storytelling and party management is flawed.