Final Fantasy is a series that has long prided itself on its quality of story and characters. Many of its protagonists have become the most marketable of JRPG heroes. Games like Final Fantasy VI and Final Fantasy VII built up the possibilities of JRPG storytelling. Yet by 2016, Final Fantasy has created a reputation of painfully self-serious characters bemoaning their destinies. After a while, that kind of melodrama grows stale. That is why World of Final Fantasy is such a great move for this series.
World of Final Fantasy comes just before Final Fantasy XV‘s long awaited release. After 10 years of development, Final Fantasy XV promises to be the largest, most grandiose production yet. The game will have the sharpest graphics, the biggest world, the most handsome heroes. But Final Fantasy XV is suffocating in its scale and ambition. It has an anime, a movie, more mobile spin-offs than I can count, and for some reason, it even has a car.
Meanwhile, World of Final Fantasy is a little monster-collecting game featuring chibi characters. This game is a self-aware romp that has buckets of cuteness and just wants to be fun. Ultimately, World of Final Fantasy is a great move for this franchise.
Final Fantasy’s Cute Roots
Final Fantasy XII was a political drama about the survival of nations set to heavy Shakespearean dialog. Then Final Fantasy XIII was a brutal tale of evil gods tormenting humanity with hopeless fates. These were games with deeply unhappy casts. World of Final Fantasy, on the other hand, is about twins who wear monsters on their heads. They also make puns constantly. But how does all of this fit together into one series?
While Final Fantasy is often seen as a heavy drama featuring spiky-haired heroes with swords, the series has also always had another side. The two most iconic creatures of this series are a giant yellow bird, the Chocobo, and a floating bunny with bat wings, the Moogle. Recurring enemies include the Cactuar, which is just a cactus dancing like an Egyptian (stylish mustache optional). We can also add in Tonberries, Black Mages, Carbuncles, and Moombas.
The series relied on super-deformed graphics for its characters until Final Fantasy VIII. Pull out the sprites from Final Fantasy IV or V into three dimensions and give them voice acting and you now have the chibified characters of World of Final Fantasy.
Also, though Square Enix prefers to remember the drama of Final Fantasy VII, they forget just how ridiculous that game often was. Cloud Strife cross-dressed to sneak into a mobster’s house. The party teamed up with Cait Sith, a robot kitty riding a fat Moogle. Cloud used to make jokes and say dorky lines like “let’s mosey.” Cut to the movie sequel, Advent Children, and suddenly he’s hiding from humanity like a bitter anti-hero. Maybe we need to turn back the clock a bit on this series’ image?
World of Final Fantasy is a JRPG with a Hard J. The game’s opening features a Japanese pop song over an anime short film. But that’s nothing compared to the end credits. In the credits, the tiny deformed characters dance their massive skulls off to a J-pop song so utterly cheery it will cause your teeth to rot. But the real cuteness comes from seeing old faces in a very… different way.
Every element of the series has been retooled into a sweet pint-sized form. The cheerful make-over includes even the dramatic “mature” moments. Squall Leonhart back in his own game was a miserable anti-social teenager. He is just as bad here, but now he’s about a foot tall. The juxtaposition only adds to how hilarious and cute this game is. Squall can moan about his path as a warrior, but his sword is only inches long. His tiny nub hands cannot lift it higher than his own massive eyes. It’s hilarious to see Final Fantasy take a self-aware look at itself.
Making the Old New
After years of experimental JRPGs like Final Fantasy XII and XIII which abandoned the old turn-based systems, XV will be a straight-up action RPG. It makes sense, therefore, that just before the series jumps into a completely untested dimension, that Square Enix would make something decidedly retro. World of Final Fantasy is the first console release in over a decade to feature row combat. It’s actually a very simple battle system. There are no Limit Breaks, Stagger Gauges, Gambits, or other nonsense. Just two bars for HP and magic. The game is very accessible.
That said, the combat of Final Fantasy X did not feature characters wearing monsters on their heads like hats. World of Final Fantasy has no armor or weapons for its two playable characters. Instead, all abilities and most stat upgrades are gained by building three-layer stacks of monsters and going into battle. You’re controlling an absurd tower of characters and monsters. It is clearly absurd, yet like everything else about World of Final Fantasy, it’s adorable. But it also adds a Pokémon-style monster collection mechanic, using the series’ backlog of iconic monsters as potential allies. After decades of fighting Tonberries and Behemoths, finally World of Final Fantasy allows players to capture them. (XIII-2 tried this as well, with less success.)
There’s a refreshing familiarity to World of Final Fantasy. One feared that with the Bravely Default games, Square Enix was segregating classic JRPG gameplay out of Final Fantasy. But here is once again that familiar loop of traveling from town to town, meeting characters, and going on a grand old adventure.
World of Final Fantasy is rich in series references. Only a series veteran would truly know who Cloud is. And only the absolutely obsessed Wiki Admins might recognize super obscure characters like Sherlotta from the DS game, Echoes of Time (or Shelke from Dirge of Cerberus, a game that was probably better off forgotten).
The game is a long exploration of classic series locations, starting from the very beginning with Final Fantasy I‘s first town, Cornelia. World of Final Fantasy looks like Baby’s First Final Fantasy, but it’s actually a series celebration. Every location, every sound cue, the entire bestiary, and nearly every character you meet is a reference to Final Fantasy history.
Cute But Not Childish
Most of World of Final Fantasy seems geared for kids. If you look at the tiny characters, the monster collecting, and the overall friendly tone of winking self-aware jokes, you would see a game that’s trying to build a younger audience. But more is going on here.
This is a game that wants to win over a new crowd, but it also teases them with the richness of the games that came before. After you’ve finished with the story of the twins Reynn and Lann, those newly converted players might get curious about the pirate captain Faris, or the Black Mage, Vivi. World of Final Fantasy still has its own characters and story to tell. It isn’t exclusively references for the hardcore fans like previous characters reunions like Dissidia Final Fantasy.
The game also offers a clever visual twist on previous adventures. Somehow it is a lot easier to take Lightning‘s hard exterior when she’s so small and cuddly that you want to squeeze her to death.
Really what World of Final Fantasy seems to be is a safe hedging of Square Enix’s bet on Final Fantasy XV. While we wait for the dramatic blockbuster’s release at the end of the month, we have a little game that is as cutesy as possible. That might turn off fans who came into the series looking for something more serious.
World of Final Fantasy is also not all chibis and puns. There is a complex and often dark storyline hiding behind the charm. Still, there’s something bold about making a game so unabashedly Japanese and giving it a wide international release on consoles. Also, this game is also more in line with older Final Fantasy than a lot of people would like to admit.
In the end, it’s great to see there’s a lot of options on the Final Fantasy menu.