World of Final Fantasy — Imprismed in Grim-oire

I’d barely had a chance to get my breath back after being saved from a mob of sandworms by Lightning before Figaro Castle rose from the ground and Edgar appeared to take us into custody. Now I have to fight my way out of D-District Prison beneath the sands assisted by Squall, but who should stand in our way other than Vivi and an army of Black Mages?

Why any of this is happening I couldn’t say, but it feels great.

If none of those names made any sense to you then I’d recommend you steer well clear of World of Final Fantasy. This is a prime example of a game unashamedly riding a giant wave of nostalgia, and who can blame it considering the rabid appetite for remakes amongst Final Fantasy fans? But is this just a second-rate game with the Final Fantasy stamp on it, churned out for fans to lap up, or is there something a bit deeper here?

Those are their serious faces

Total Rikku-lection

As an exercise in nostalgia, World of Final Fantasy’s selling point is how It brings all of the franchise’s mainstays (both heroes and villains) together in an alternate universe, loosely tied together by an original story and protagonists who are as about as clueless as the player as to what’s going on.

Also everything is downright adorable.

Perhaps as a way of signposting and fully embracing the “silly spin-off” nature of the game, everything from the characters you meet to the monsters that you fight and tame is designed in the cutesy “chibi” style. A bit of a swerve from the hyper-realistic look of modern Final Fantasy games, but a refreshing change that allows the game to have a lot of fun with its slapstick and facial expressions.

Some of the main players in the story, including the protagonists, are larger “Jiants” that look like they belong in a very different game. This sort of makes sense in the context of the story, but let’s just say I was thankful for the ability to shrink myself as the Jiant designs — particularly in the anime cutscenes — look rather unsettling.

I mean… what can I say?

The overall tone of the game — aside from the story itself, which is oddly bleak — has been well matched to the silly and adorable visuals. The dialogue is very much the tongue-in-cheek, fourth-wall-breaking, self-referential and pun-heavy style that has been adopted in (Western localisations of) JRPGs in recent times. This even extends to the character bios and monster descriptions in the game’s codex equivalent, and there are some genuinely funny jokes and interactions in there along with the plethora that fall flat or have you cringing in your seat. I was even more glad of the Japanese voice DLC (featuring a top-class cast) than usual, as you can tell from the trailers and the subtitles that the dialogue and cutscenes would have been insufferable in the English dub.

There’s a floating mascot character with a high-pitched voice who drops “the” into random places in a sentence — need I say more?

To be honest with this setup it is hard to pinpoint what audience they were aiming for with this title. The chibi treatment, the silly tone and the way the game pokes fun at crowd favourites like Cloud and Squall would likely put-off diehard Final Fantasy fans, but the way the game leans on its nostalgia factor and assumes a certain amount of knowledge means that those new to the series won’t get much out of it either.

*shudders* At least it was in Japanese

Sins of the father

But what’s it all about? Our twin protagonists, Lann and Reyn, appear to reside in a world outside of time and are afflicted by a bout of amnesia (because of course they are) with regard to their lives up to the current point. Thankfully the aforementioned cutesy floating fox demon of exposition shows up, along with God herself, to set them straight.

We are introduced to the world of “Grymoire” — inhabited mostly by adorable chibi folk and critters — and tasked with the rather vague quest of going around “imprisming” the “mirages” of the world, aka catching the monsters, to add to our collection. A very Pokemon-esque adventure. Of course that’s not all there is to it, but whilst the story does develop from there it is sadly a rather cliché affair.

Aside from trying to regain their memories and reunite with their estranged mother, our twins are forced to jump through such standard hoops as collecting keys of different elements from a variety of dungeons in order to fulfil a prophecy. Stop me if this is sounding at all familiar. There is also a hefty amount of foreshadowing for one of the most obvious plot twists in history, and it does “that classic JRPG thing” of twisting and turning beyond belief to keep you invested for as long as possible.

I could subsist entirely on images of chibi Squall, though my opinion of the game is well summarised by Lightning’s expression

By the time I got to the first big blatant twist I was about ready to stop playing — partly due to the uninspired story and partly due to the systems getting a bit stale — but the game yanked me back in by getting all of our favourite faces from Final Fantasy history (known as “champions” in Grymoire) to team up in Balamb Garden at just the right moment. Square know my nostalgia weak points well it seems.

Alongside the main story there are a whole host of other activities to get stuck into. For one thing our protagonists are arbitrarily given the ability to travel through time and space to “intervene” and help champions who find themselves in a tight spot. In reality this usually meant watching a fun little skit play out, with Edgar and Vivi for example, and then being dropped into a battle to beat up a boss.

Some of these intervention sequences featured genuinely entertaining character interactions and others were seriously crazy. One featuring Squall condenses his character arc from “I don’t have any dreams and life isn’t worth living” to “actually it is” in the space of a couple of minutes, and one starring Tifa preaches some truly inspirational stuff around believing in yourself and your own power to change things rather than sitting around and blaming other people for the world being terrible. Great messages for 2016.

Courage is the magic that turns dreams into reality

But your side adventures don’t end there! There are a number of hidden areas around Grymoire to uncover and rare mirages to capture, plus a colosseum in which to fight powerful opponents in exchange for items. There are also little self-contained missions — or “miniventures” — given by NPCs, but these are essentially pointless fetch quests and often equated to simply buying an item and handing it in through a menu.

Needless to say that if you want to see everything there is to see and catch everything there is to catch then you’re looking at 100+ hours of content; perhaps a less welcome artefact of the JRPG formula than the battle system. I gave it a good go initially but got sick of the endless backtracking and team micromanagement required for most tasks, not to mention my enthusiasm for extending my playtime rapidly dwindled as it became obvious the story was going to be much longer than first expected…

Guado catch ’em all

It’s all well and good knowing we’re to gallivant around some foreign land hoovering up the locals, but how do we go about doing that — what’s the meat of the game?

First of all, let’s make it clear that the Pokemon parallels don’t stop with the story’s initial premise. At its most basic level the game’s activities consist of strolling through a variety of environments, having random encounters with monsters, weakening them in order to throw a container at them and adding them to your stash. Said monsters belong to different elements, earn experience and evolve through battling, and even contribute to the completion of a Pokedex-esque “mirage manual”. I will say that it is much more tactical than Pokemon however.

Not enough games let you do things like this

The turn-based battle system of Final Fantasy days-gone-by makes a triumphant return, with the modern addition of the “pick how ‘active’ you want your active time to be” option (I opted for the fully turn-based “wait” setup partly because I like to plan out all my actions but mostly because I’m too slow on the inputs). Series regulars will naturally be familiar with the spells, items, abilities and currency of the world as well as the characters.

The twist that World of Final Fantasy introduces is the “stacking” mechanic. Strange as it sounds, this is the ability to battle whilst balancing smaller mirages on your head or even by riding around on bigger ones. Adding mirages to your stack adds their stats and abilities to your own but with the trade-off of reduced stability, meaning you can be sent toppling over by enemy attacks. Makes a weird kind of sense really.

This allows the player to experiment with different stacks; maybe in an area inhabited by ice enemies you will go full on the attack by riding Ifrit into battle whilst balancing a bomb on your head, or perhaps you’ll opt to stack an icy tonberry atop the fiery hellhound singeing your hair to boost your resistance to enemy attacks. And this is just scratching the surface of the surprisingly deep battle system.

Even before you throw yourself into a dungeon you have to decide which mirages to take with you (up to a maximum of 8) from which you can form your stacks — a choice that you don’t want to regret all the way to the next save point. You also have to decide how to configure your stacks, how to level up your mirages and what “mirajewels” to equip, giving your party supplementary abilities on top of those provided by your trusty companions. And that’s all before the screen cracks even once in that universal sign for a random encounter.

I have ridden the mighty Sand Worm

Once in the fray you still have to juggle your stacks’ health, action points and stability whilst monitoring (de)buffs and ensuring you are dealing maximum damage by targeting enemies’ weaknesses or using area attacks. On top of the wide selection of battle actions made available to you by your stacks it is also possible to summon the powerful champions to instantly aid your cause by doing massive damage or reviving fallen comrades. You can even hop aboard giant “mega mirages” who take your place in the fight until they expend a limited supply of action points.

You might be thinking that all of these different options and variations and the thinking that has to go into them would be rather overwhelming. And you would be right. Even when doing something as seemingly basic as picking your team for an area you are faced with countless decisions. As with Pokemon there are hundreds of mirages to choose from, with each having multiple forms it can swap between with different ability sets; there will be plenty you want to bring along because they’re cute or they’re competent or they’re situationally strong, but you can’t take them all. Not to mention you don’t want your mirages of a particular element to become over-levelled and leave the rest of your team underpowered for when you progress to the next area.

Ultimately, whilst some of these new mechanics are initially fresh and interesting, there were too many things clamouring for my attention and I was faced with frustrating choice paralysis (although I am particularly susceptible to that). I would spend half an hour painstakingly optimising my team just for the sake of one or two encounters or to quickly discover the enemies in the erupting volcano I was assaulting were arbitrarily wind elementals. Not only did I quickly tire of wasting my time in this way — and ended up sticking to one trusty configuration for my stacks — but it made dipping in and out of the game for quick sessions nigh-on impossible. I also completely forgot to use the champions and mega mirages most of the time, not least because of their unskippable overly long cutscenes disproportionate to the benefits they bring.

As immediately intriguing as this Escher-esque design is, imagine trying to navigate through dozens of identical screens over the course of a few hours

Seymour places

It wouldn’t be outrageous to claim that games on a scale such as this can live or die by their environments. After all that’s what you’re trudging through and spending the vast majority of your time looking at, and a bit of variety in terrain and encounters is what keeps a game fresh.

Sadly this is an area where World of Final Fantasy misses the mark.

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of things done well here — notably the use of classic Final Fantasy music like Big Bridge and the chocobo themes really adds to the atmosphere (although the original tracks aren’t anything special) and a lot of the backgrounds are surprisingly grand and lush and detailed for a game with this art style. However all that goes to waste when your dungeons are overly long and adorned with copy-and-pasted backdrops.

The level design here is really shocking. Every dungeon is several screens longer than it needs to be, especially with so little variation in scenery and enemy types — whilst there is an incredible number of foes in the game as a whole, each area will tend to repeat the same 2 or 3. This issue is only exacerbated when said dungeons are entirely linear strolls to the exit; no interaction with the environment and no puzzles to solve. Bad enough when you’ve at least got pretty set-dressing to look at, but really disheartening when you’re stuck in an endless brown tunnel. The final few dungeons are particularly ugly and repetitive, whilst also being longer than their predecessors.

Seems to me that we could have swam across that gap, but walking on the walls was probably cooler

A perfect example of this is a section when you are swimming down to the underwater dungeon. You are engulfed in a truly gorgeous and detailed scene, fish and coral abounding, and it’s a marvel to look at. For the first few seconds. However the segment continues for multiple minutes of simply holding ‘forward’ to progress whilst the screen scrolls agonisingly slowly downwards.

Ab-Jecht misery

After the big twist and reveal the world opens up in classic JRPG fashion, and you’re even given an airship! Why exactly I couldn’t tell you, as you already had the power to travel to any location and you actually can’t navigate to anywhere in the airship even if you could make sense of its hideous controls. A sign of things to come surely, as the quality of the game takes a real nose dive at this point and I was already considering giving up as it was…

I hope to never look upon this hellish visage again

The first inexcusable move the game makes is to introduce horrifically designed mandatory minigames into the main story that you need to clear in order to proceed. These included a blitzball-inspired shore defence game and a weird sandy variant on battleships, all clunky and slow and barely functional. The cream of the crop though was a game in which a cactaur teleports around your character and you have to land a hit on him as he appears. Not only are your punches and kicks incredibly slow and unresponsive, but there is literally no logic or pattern to where the cactaur appears; it is entirely dumb luck. Even if you guess the right direction to punch, there is a miniscule window of time in which you needed to have pressed an attack button to catch him before he disappears. Agony.

The next howler was to lean on the aforementioned, previously cool and interesting, time jump intervention system for the main quests. When previously you were hiking over all kinds of terrain and visiting diverse cities you are now relegated to standing in an empty room and jumping from encounter to encounter through a series of menus. This removes any illusion of “grand adventure” and any sense of presence you had in the world as you are literally ticking battles off a list; the encounters still feel like optional challenge content rather than part of an epic quest to stop a real and immediate threat.

Super-duper-ultimate-secret-special-omega weapon!

One of these encounters was against an unprecedentedly powerful foe (“supraltima weapon” I believe) with an incredibly large health bar and, I kid you not, you are limited to doing a certain amount of damage to it per encounter, at which point you are kicked back to the menu and forced to go back into the event — cutscenes and all — to continue to whittle him down. It took me at least 8 or 9 attempts before I finally brought him to his knees. And what’s the point? It’s not even challenging, it’s simply time consuming.

Just to rub salt in the wounds everything gets progressively less adorable and more depressing as the game goes on as well.

Combat alone can’t Tidus over

With the pillars of the story crumbling around me, the niggles in the battle system became even more noticeable and frustrating. It was around this point that I completely gave up on changing the setup of my team and stacks. I also noticed for the first time that there is no way of knowing whether enchantments/(de)buffs are still active or have run out. In the later game where you’re mostly facing a rush of boss encounters, the massively long unskippable attack animations become truly unpalatable — even if you fast forward them they still take forever to resolve and are often occurring every turn in a given combat.

As you might have guessed from the above “fight” with supraltima weapon, the difficultly curve is all over the place by now. Even in the very late stages of the game some battles are ludicrously easy whereas others are not. Even then the “hard” fights are testing your attention span more than your strategic capabilities; showdowns with the big bad guys amount to nothing more exciting than slogs through mountains of HP with no real threat of death.

The welcome exception is the very final boss who posed an actual tense challenge, and whom I eventually thwarted on the very last turn possible before he could wipe out my remaining team members with a mega flare. Satisfying, but just made the previous poor balancing all the more inexcusable.

What drugs are you feeding me now giant rainbow fox?

Yuna got to be kidding me

Whilst I don’t want to regale you with all the finer details of the game’s plot, I feel it is important to recount my experience of the final act as it was the final nail in the coffin of a game that had massively overstayed its welcome. Big spoilers ahead.

I was so, so ready for the game to end, for all the reasons mentioned above. I even managed to persevere through one of the worst final dungeons I have ever encountered to try and resolve everything in one afternoon. But when I finally got to the ending it was awful and miserable — can’t describe it in any other way. One of the twins sacrifices themselves to seal away the big bad, leaving the other to go home with a broken soul whilst none of the plot points have been resolved: monsters are still ravaging the world and we haven’t heard from the God lady who started this whole mess since the first hour of the game, and yet the credits roll. There is a post-credits sting in which the dead twin may not be so dead after all, but it is accompanied by oddly sinister music and then I’m booted back to the main menu.

Naturally I’m furious at this point. How could I have forced myself to get through this atrocity only to be rewarded with such a joke of an ending? But then I discover — through an accidental button press — that things may not be over after all! That’s right, the game pulls a “just kidding!” on you and drags you back in. The beloved giant rainbow fox spirit of time and exposition appears to turn back the clock at the expense of all of its lives, resetting all of my hard work of the past 4 hours. They truly reached to the bottom of the bag here for ways in which to artificially extend the length of the game. Was the intention really just to make the ending so bad I would be compelled to get back into the action and fix it? I was just left fuming.

Oh, and one of the very first things that happens after you jump back in time is you find a way to resurrect the stupid fox demon. Thanks game.

I can tell you it looks a lot less interesting on the inside

After fighting through another almost-equally-terrible “final” dungeon and the climactic boss fight I was treated to the actual ending, which was satisfying in a sort of bittersweet kind of way and at least attempted to tie up some of the loose ends. In another classic JRPG move it also turns out there is a “true ending” that you can get by completing absolutely every little bit of optional content and catching every single mirage in the game, which needless to say I didn’t do. Hunting it down on YouTube revealed it to be the exact sort of lame cop-out happy ending one might have expected, though really there’s no reason we couldn’t have had that resolution in the first place.

Wakka way to go

So that’s World of Final Fantasy. The final credits sequence is ludicrous and almost oppressively Japanese, and I never thought I’d ever see anything of its like in a Final Fantasy game. That said, I’m about to dive into FFXV so we’ll see about that…

I came to World of Final Fantasy looking a light bit of fun; some filler content before releases I was more interested in came out. And it certainly looks like a nice little bite of fun — that’s how it was marketed so I probably wasn’t the only one fooled — but it turned out to be a phenomenally major time investment full of frustrations.

Thank heavens!

I genuinely did enjoy the first 20 hours or so before it spirals out of control, and if you are the sort of person who would be able to pry yourself away from it after you’ve had your fun then it may well be worth picking up when it’s on offer, but the many hours afterwards were almost physically painful to endure. Needless to say I picked the worst possible time to institute a “don’t move on to the next game before you’ve finished the current one” policy.

I watched it. I can’t unwatch it.