Like Harry Potter, Final Fantasy is one of those series that has grown up with its audience. Spanning nearly 30 years of history, it's evolved from its humble beginnings on NES, moving to the broader shades of gray found in Final Fantasy 4 and 6, and has since blossomed into a massive, multimedia operation featuring complex combat systems and steadfast, nihilistic heroes. But while Final Fantasy's older fans look forward to 15's imminent (fingers crossed) arrival, there's a whole new generation of youngsters growing up who know nothing of the ways of moogles, cactuars, and summons. That's exactly what director and writer Hiroki Chiba hopes to fix with World of Final Fantasy.
"I've been with the franchise starting with Final Fantasy 6, and I've been with the franchise for 23 years," Chiba tells me through a translator while we discuss the project's origins. "That's why (series producer) Mr. Shinji Hashimoto had consulted me on this project. In our discussion, because we wanted to reach out to our younger audience, our kids, we also approached (Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles artist) Mr. Yasuhisa Izumisawa, who worked on the character design for these Lilikin folk." World of Final Fantasy's Lilikin are the little super-deformed bobblehead-looking characters that make up a large bulk of the game's characters, essentially becoming the adorable, beady-eyed face for the project. They're simultaneously the entry point to the series for a large portion of this game's intended audience, while also offering a source of nostalgia overload for returning series fans.
Set in the mystical land of Grimoire, you play as tweenaged twins Reynn and Lann. Reynn is the smart one, cool-headed and able to think on her feet. Lann, on the other hand, is a stubborn dunce, and during my time with the opening hour of the game, many of World of Final Fantasy's puns (and I do mean many) are at his expense. They've have been teleported to this Final Fantasy mash-up land, and because they retain their normal-sized stature, they're referred to as Jiants (yep, giants with a 'J') by Grimoire's diminutive Lilikin inhabitants.
The two begin their adventures in Corneria, meeting with a tiny Lilikin version of Princess Sarah before setting off on their adventure. If that's setting off warning bells: Yes, the first kingdom you visit is the first kingdom from the very first Final Fantasy game, only given a far more whimsical, storybook feel. This will be the first of many references to the series proper, though Chiba explains that many of those call-backs aren't merely there because they can be.
"In terms of character selection, it's interesting because (executive producer) Tetsuya Nomura...was quite surprised with some of the selections I came up with, because we didn't choose based on popularity. It was more about how do we introduce characters that best fit the narrative and the situation our protagonists are faced with, and finding ways to pick characters that best fit that scenario. For example, there's a scene [where] you're at a port and there are some pirates that come, and when you think of pirates, you think Final Fantasy 5 and Faris has to be there. That's the kind of thinking that went into the character selection." So while you'll get to hang out with cutesy versions of mainstays like Lightning or Cloud (Chiba's personal favorite), you'll also see more obscure characters like Shelk from Final Fantasy 7: Dirge of Cerberus, or Sherlotta from Crystal Chronicles: Echoes of Time. They'll fill roles in various quests, and some may even act as your super-powerful summon attacks in battle.
Speaking of which, all of these characters and situations are tied together by one of the strangest battle systems I've ever encountered. Combat is a return to the quasi-real-time/turn-based system found in games like Final Fantasy 7. You'll see a visual representation of everyone's turns on a gauge over on the left side of the screen, and once an icon gets to the top, it's that person's turn. You'll defeat enemies with a variety of physical and magical attacks, and you can 'Imprism' monsters (puns!) to get one of over 200 individual allies to fight on your side. These monsters (referred to as Mirages in-game) won't just join you in battle, though: You stack them on top of your head to add their abilities, elemental attributes, health, and strength to your own.
Yeah. It's strange.
"What got the concept started was when we were talking with Mr. Izumisawa," says Chiba. "It was back when the project got kicked off, he was doodling some concept sketches and drew a warrior, and on top of that was a black mage, and on top of that was a white mage. And I looked at that and thought, 'Oh, what if I incorporated that into my battle system? I'm sure it'll look very interesting, but also make for very interesting gameplay.'"
Nearly everything is tied to this bizarre stacking mechanic. In addition to forming towers of monsters, you can unstack them as well, which makes each individual character weaker, but gives you more potential actions in a turn. And certain monsters are even bigger than you, which means you'll need to transform Reynn or Lann into their own Lilikin form to stack them on top of the monster. Enemies can also arrive in battle in stacks, and a series of critical hits can topple them (or even your own stacks) over. There are even puzzles strewn about the world that require specific stacks to solve, forcing players to pick out Mirages of a certain element or a stack Mirages up to hit a goal weight before you can unlock the next area. All of it feels simple enough for a child to grasp after some experimentation, but there's a surprising amount of depth here that even I was getting into the different stackable combinations and unlockable abilities.
There's a lot of potential for tinkering, and that includes how you interact with World of Final Fantasy's combat. Much of it is customizable, allowing players of differing skill levels the ability to tailor their experience to how familiar they are with Final Fantasy's core concepts. Simple mode presents your combat options in an easy to parse radial menu, while Classic mode presents combat in the menus that series fans will easily recognize, and you can switch between the two with the push of a button. You can customize how fast or active battles are, allowing less adept players the chance to take a breath and make decisions as they come. You'll even be able to fast-forward through combat encounters if you're just trying to grind for experience points or cash. "Being able to cater to both ends of the spectrum was definitely something we kept in mind," Chiba explains, "and the team, including myself, was very careful not to lean toward one extreme or the other. This is something I had to discuss with the programmers, and I may have pushed them a little hard on this, but I wanted [World of Final Fantasy] to have many options, especially in the battle system."
World of Final Fantasy is looking like a silly, inventive, and accessible take on a classic formula, one that has the potential to introduce a whole new audience to the unique silliness and tactical depth of the Final Fantasy franchise. We'll get to see how that shakes out when it launches on PS4 and Vita on October 25.