World of Final Fantasy walks a thin tightrope. It wants to be two things to two different kinds of people as it tries to appeal to new, younger players with breezy JRPG gameplay and characters who wouldn't be out of place in a tween-friendly cartoon show, while offering heavy doses of nostalgia and deeper, more strategic systems for long-time series fans. For the first 15 hours, it's pretty successful at doing both - but once the challenge disappears, the joy of seeing all your favorite Final Fantasy characters and monsters quickly gives way to mind-numbing repetition.
In World of Final Fantasy, you play as young twins Reynn and Lann, who have found themselves without memories in a magical world filled with tiny, Funko Pop-shaped people and creatures known as Lilikins. They refer to Reynn and Lann as 'Jiants', as they have the ability to switch between normal and Lilikin size at will, and are able to capture and harness the power of the numerous 'mirages' (aka monsters) who roam the land. Within the first few minutes of playing, you're treated to a Kingdom Hearts-ian word salad of proper nouns, but what saves World of Final Fantasy from completely derailing is its willingness to make fun of itself constantly. Our protagonists aren't afraid to mock each other over their inability to understand the tangled web of prophecies that govern the land, or joke about the ridiculousness of riding in a train conducted by a sentient Cactuar.
The key to regaining your memories and purging the land of evil lies in your journey across Grymoire to find a series of keys, and this is how World of Final Fantasy slots in its references and callbacks. The game practically opens in Corneria, the very first town in the very first Final Fantasy, and as you progress, you'll meet familiar faces like Final Fantasy 7's own Cloud and Tifa, and visit familiar locations like Final Fantasy 10's sundrenched Besaid Island. Fans will get more out of these references and in-jokes, as World of Final Fantasy sends up everything from Tidus' ridiculous laugh to Lightning's comical stoicism, but it also does a decent job providing new players with enough characterization that they'll be able to understand motivations even if they don't get all of its references. With a clean, cartoony style and atmosphere and surprisingly high production values, it's hard not to fall in love with its charms, even when the plot goes into full plot-twist melodrama mode about 20 hours in.
Combat is as much a combination of new ideas and tried-and-true Final Fantasy tropes as the story, and for the first dozen or so hours, it's actually a lot of fun. Battle flow harkens back to the quasi-real time/turn-based Active Time Battle system of yore, where characters take turns picking from a menu of attacks and special abilities, and turn order can be affected by the individual agility rating of each character, as well as by various spells and buffs. As Jiants, Reynn and Lann are able to capture mirages (referred to in Grymoire as 'imprisiming' - yeah, it's that kind of game), and then use them in battle, not unlike Pokemon.
Where World of Final Fantasy wildly diverges from that monster-catching RPG is in how you build your party out with those monsters. Here, you'll form stacks of three characters - one large, medium, and small - and each stack is a combination of the individual parts' stats, abilities, strengths, and weaknesses. A monster may have a series of fire spells and be weak against water, and if you add that monster to the bottom of a stack, those traits apply to the whole tower. Stacks are always more powerful than individual characters, but there are times when you may want to unstack characters, whether it's to lessen the chance of getting hit by a powerful spell, or to allow multiple characters the chance to use items before the enemy gets a turn in. Stacks can also be toppled over if hit with enough force, and enemies can come in stacks as well, so everything that applies to you applies to them as well.
As simplistic as World of Final Fantasy's approach to combat is, this stacking mechanic offers a lot of customizability and opportunities to tinker with some surprisingly interesting systems. When you first start out, you have to pay close attention to your stack and the enemies in a given area, keeping in mind weaknesses and strengths as you push forward. Individual mirages also have their own Mirage Board - similar to the Sphere Grid in Final Fantasy 10 - where you can spend points each monster earns as they level up on new spells and stat boosts. For a time, all of these strange ideas seem to be working in concert.
Then something happens about 15 hours in, around the halfway point, and all of its options and mechanics gradually transform combat into a giant cakewalk. Monsters may grow stronger, but encounters never really get all that more difficult or demanding, and the mirages you'll have by that point are much more capable than the ones you start with, their mirage boards filled with higher stats and more powerful abilities. Battles that used to require intelligent planning and an understanding of elemental strengths and weaknesses now devolve into simply spamming physical attacks and occasionally healing, combat no longer punishing you for sticking with the same set of monsters.
There are a few battles after this point that require a little bit more effort, but for the most part, you can breeze through nearly every encounter in your sleep. Between all of the options in the Mirage Board, the Champions you can unlock which summon classic Final Fantasy characters to perform powerful attacks, the Mirajewels you can equip which give Reynn and Lann additional powers outside of their own stacks, there are just too many opportunities available to break the game and steamroll through the back half once you figure out how everything fits together.
This only exacerbates how drawn-out the late-game of World of Final Fantasy feels compared to its surprisingly strong opening. Later dungeons go on for far too long, often taking up to an hour to slog through, every few steps launching you into a random battle where you'll mash the attack button to get it over with. And in order to reach the true ending, you'll spend a lot of time finishing Intervention Quests. Here, you spend Arma Jewels (MacGuffins earned throughout the game by beating bosses and completing other tasks) to access short side-stories where you help out various characters by defeating particularly beefy enemies. These quests offer interesting vignettes between its super-cute Final Fantasy characters, but they also tie into its core problem - combat just isn't all that interesting once you've figured it out. Plus, the fact that the story forces you to halt all forward progress and pick out missions from a menu not once, but twice just to see the ending reeks of padding.
With a bit of editing, World of Final Fantasy would have been an easy recommendation. The plot may be up there on the anime nonsense scale, but ultimately, it's a fun, effervescent Saturday morning cartoon-inspired romp through a greatest hits of Final Fantasy characters, locations, creatures, and tunes, and its twists are genuinely intriguing. For fans of the series, getting to watch Edgar from Final Fantasy 6 hang out with Vivi from Final Fantasy 9 is a rare treat, and for newcomers, it's a bizarre, magical tale filled with outlandish concepts you could only get from Final Fantasy. It's just a shame that getting to those moments slowly devolves into a disappointing chore.
This game was reviewed on PS4.