Ever since it was first announced, we've kept a close eye on World of Final Fantasy, Square Enix's cutesy homage to Final Fantasy's long and illustrious past. Mixing the monster-collecting of Pokemon with an epic role-playing game story, we've long had it pegged it as one of the most interesting releases of this year (don't tell Square Enix, but we've been much more hyped for this than Final Fantasy XV), as we practically counted down the days to its release. And as it turns out, it was well worth the wait. World of Final Fantasy is an absolute must buy for anyone with even a passing interest in role playing games, and a great way for newcomers to familiarise themselves with the series.
Set in the cutesy land of Grymoire, World of Final Fantasy follows the globe-trotting adventures of a pair of amnesiac teens, Reynn and Lann. Waking up in a town frozen in time, the two soon learn that they used to be a pair of 'Mirage Keepers' - powerful beings who once commanded whole legions of monsters, known as mirages. With few clues as to what caused them to lose their memories in the first place, and even less knowledge about their past, it's up to you to set out on a journey across the land, in an effort to recover their lost Mirages, and hopefully jog their memory in the process.
But things in Grymoire are looking a bit bleak. An organisation known as the Bahamution Federation have been taking over the world city by city in the name of 'protection', forcing the inhabitants to play by their rules, or feel the consequences. As the "Jiants of the hills" (or, "giants" in normal speak) that prophecy speaks of, the twins soon get wrapped up in a somewhat more sinister world-saving tale.
A Japanese role-playing game through and through, most of your time in World of Final Fantasy will be spent jogging from place to place, helping out various characters and battling all manner of cutesy monsters along the way. Heavily story-driven, World of Final Fantasy is bursting with personality and nostalgia for long-term fans of the much-loved Final Fantasy series - from the many, many familiar monsters you can recruit, to the characters you'll meet throughout your journey (there's the Warrior of Light from the original game, FFXIII's Lightning, FFX heroine Yuna, and many, many more), there's loads of nods and references to games of years gone by. But that doesn't mean there's nothing here for newcomers either; indeed, as someone who's only really dabbled in the occasional Final Fantasy game, there was still a heck of a lot to like outside of the in jokes and references.
Being a role-playing game, (random) battling is pretty par for the course, and World of Final Fantasy makes use of the much-lauded Active Time Battle system - or ATB for short - which sees you and your enemies taking it in turns to attack, defend and use items, with faster characters' turns coming round faster than the slower ones. Depending on how you have it set up, the action will either pause when your turn comes round, giving you plenty of time to think about your choices (the default), or can be tweaked so that the action continues whilst you're navigating menus, providing a much more hectic challenge. Thankfully, given the battles' super duper slow pace between turns, you can fast-forward over much of the waiting around, too. It's a system which may have been popularised by the Final Fantasy games of old, but as the saying goes, if it ain't broke, pile something else on top instead.
You see, World of Final Fantasy's main hook is that the twins, Lann and Reynn - and indeed the whole world of Grymoire - like to turn themselves into living totem poles by stacking all sorts on their heads. From folks in town wandering around with a dead fish or the family pet on their head to enemies piled on top of each other, 'stacking' is a big part of World of Final Fantasy, especially when it comes to battles. The land of World of Final Fantasy is home to two distinct breeds of people - the bobble-headed Lilikin and the larger, and the more normally proportioned Jiants, which have become few and far between in recent years. Lann and Reynn are unique in that they can switch between the two forms at will, something which comes in especially handy where stacking is concerned.
As Mirage Keepers on a mission to rebuild their lost Mirage army, the vast majority of the monsters you'll encounter during your adventure can be captured and used to aid you in battle, Pokemon style - although it's not as easy as simply tossing a pokeball to capture them. Each Mirage has a different criteria you'll need to satisfy before you have the opportunity to catch it and add it to your ranks - some are happy to just be beaten about a bit with physical attacks, some demand you inflict various status effects first, while a few more unusual ones need you to heal them before trying to catch them. Once you've satisfied their demands, the Mirage will start glowing, giving you your 'Prismtunity', at which point it's a simple case of weakening them a bit to make them easier to catch, before using the 'Imprism' command to lock them inside a Pokeball-like Prismatarium item. Once caught, they can be used in battle by adding them to a character's 'stack'.
Essentially a vertical take on the Pokemon games, Lann and Reynn can pile these various Final Fantasy monsters, from Chocobos to Moogles to Behemoths, on their heads while in their Jiant forms, or sit their Lilikin selves in the middle of a stack, riding around on one with another stylishly perched on their head. Each stack can be a maximum of three bodies high, and must contain no more than one of each size of Mirage, with S on top, M in the middle and L on the bottom. Depending on the order of your stack, the elemental powers of the Mirages, and the attacks each knows, your characters will have access to a different selection of moves - for example, piling up three who know fire spells will give you the more powerful Fireaga spell, while a combination of sword, fang or claw users might give you a better physical attack.
Generally speaking, you're better off staying stacked up in battle, as stacking pools your and your Mirage's health and attack power, making you much stronger - however, there are some situations in which unstacking may be the best plan. For starters, stacks can be a tad unstable, and some enemy attacks have the ability to topple your tower, stunning everyone in the tower for a turn or so and leaving them vulnerable to attack; against such enemies, it's sometimes better to stay unstacked and take them on separately.
Stacking also magnifies any elemental weaknesses you may have (have two fire mirages, and you'll be doubly weak to water), while enemies who have instant kill attacks can wipe out half your team in one go while stacked, as opposed to taking out only a single character when unstacked. We also found unstacking to be particularly handy when trying to capture weaker Mirages, as you do less damage on your own, making whittling their health down bit by bit a lot easier.
Each Mirage has their own unique Mirage Board, where the skill points you earn from levelling up can be spent on new moves and stat upgrades to make your monsters more powerful. You can even unlock new forms, or Transfigurations, to 'evolve' it into an even more powerful form, opening up the door to a whole new set of moves in the process.
Certain Mirages can learn various 'support' powers, too, which can help Lann and Reynn while explore the various fields, forests and caves of Grymoire. For example, the fiery Sizzle skill can be used to melt ice blocks, burn through vegetation and even light fuses to clear a path, whilst Smash can be used to, well, smash your way through solid rocks. There's a handful of fun support skills too, such as Stroll, which lets you take a particular Mirage for a walk in the field, where it can sniff out hidden pick ups, and Joyride, which lets you hop on the back of your Chocobo or Behemoth to ride around the map.
As simple and fun as the battling and Mirage collecting is, the real star of World of Final Fantasy is its story and characters - fully voiced, well-written and funny, Lann and Reynn's constant brother/sister banter is a particular highlight. Throughout their adventure, the twins will meet all kinds of characters too, from the sassy monotone-voiced fairy Seraphie who holds on to your excess Mirages, and the obligatory Chocobo-clad saleswoman Chocolatte, to the hilarious Goblin Princess, who has the hots for the Warrior of Light. The latter is just one of many 'Champion' character-specific scenes you'll unlock as you play - essentially extended side quests, you'll get to 'help out' characters from Final Fantasy games gone by in their day to day scuffles with the Bahamution army and various monster Mirages.
Cute and goofy throughout, World of Final Fantasy is chock full of great characters - however your furry fox-like companion Tama's awkward the-speech pattern may drive some the-bonkers before long.
Final Fantasy spin-offs may have been a bit lacklustre in recent years, but with World of Final Fantasy, Square Enix have really hit the nail on the head here. Adorable, charming and witty, it's a magical adventure that combines both a traditional Final Fantasy and a Pokemon-style collect 'em up into one fantastic role-playing game - one that is easily in the running for best game of the year. If you like your Japanese role-playing games, do yourself a favour and pick up World of Final Fantasy, stat!