If you need to know one thing about World of Final Fantasy, it should be: It is much better than its demo would suggest.
I stress this point because, if you're like me, you had basically no idea what the game was about until you tried it for yourself. Square Enix was bizarrely cagey about the nature of this particular project in the year and a half or so between its announcement and launch, leading even the most die-hard fans wondering what the game actually was, and whether or not it would turn out to be any good. It has, in fact, turned out to be quite good — but the demo that landed on PlayStation Network recently doesn't precisely cast the best possible light on World.
It's not that the demo doesn't accurately reflect the game's content. However, it offers only a cursory look into World's systems. As a tutorial or primer it does its job; as a sampler of the game's underlying depth, however, it fails to communicate the fact that this has more to offer than some preschool take on role-playing games. Make no mistake, World of Final Fantasy presents a comparatively friendly RPG experience compared to, say, Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse. And I don't think anyone expects any RPG demo to go all-in on systems and mechanics.
In this case, though, it probably wouldn't have been a bad idea for Square Enix to pull back the curtain just a bit more and reveal the fact that after a few hours, World begins to demonstrate some real substance. See, unlike most RPGs, World of Final Fantasy actually looks like a preschool take on role-playing games. It more or less takes the saccharine plush figurine designs of the Theatrhythm Final Fantasy games and makes a proper RPG of them; World's central conceit sees its protagonists diving into a storybook and changing at will between their "big" forms (standard Tetsuya Nomura teenage character designs with lanky limbs and angular hair; think Kingdom Hearts) and "little" versions (cutesy miniature versions that basically read like Square Enix's attempt to set up its own collectibles line to compete with Nendroids and the dire Funko Pops). It gives a real "Final Fantasy for babies" visual vibe, and it might have behooved the publisher to counter that with a slightly more taxing demo.
Alas, they didn't, and that's a shame, because underneath that double-your-insulin surface, World of Final Fantasy is basically the closest thing to a classic 16-bit Final Fantasy game we've seen since... well, since the Final Fantasy Advance remakes of the original 16-bit games. It doesn't simply adopt the look of the thing while wallowing in modern conventions like Bravely Default, and its design and pacing (at least so far as I've played to this point) are better than the shoddy monument that was Final Fantasy IV: The After Years. World of Final Fantasy takes the RPG-for-beginners concept of Final Fantasy Mystic Quest, wraps it up in kid-friendly visuals, and then slowly begins to reveal its hidden depths.
At no point does World cease to be basically the cutest thing ever, though. It features a fascinating strategic combat system unlike anything I've ever seen in an RPG, and it's as unique as it is utterly adorable. It revolves around stacking your chubby little characters one on top of the other, and attempting to cause your opponent's own stacks to topple (bad guys can do it just as easily as your own party). Each character has its own size designation — small, medium, or large — and you can create little towers of party members by stacking a small character atop a medium character atop a large one.
This is every bit as ridiculous-looking as it sounds, but it adds up to create some engrossing combat strategy. When stacked, two or three characters share a single hit point pool that amounts to the individual values of each character in the stack tallied together. Likewise, you enjoy a damage and defense bonus as well. If an enemy manages to topple your group, though, not only will the individual members of a stack revert to their own individual HP and stat values, but they'll be stunned. So, at times, you'll need to unstack manually — putting yourself at a disadvantage in order to prevent being struck with an even more severe setback. Fighting unstacked isn't all bad, though; a stack enjoys only a single combat action per round despite containing up to three participants, while unstacked characters each get their own turn.
So combat, at least in the fights that matter, demands this constant tactical evaluation: Is it better to pile up into stacks and soak up more damage, or would you be better off breaking a group apart and exposing yourself to greater danger in order to enjoy some sort of advantage? A stack can only have a single elemental affiliation, for example, and in some battles you may be better off breaking your team apart to mix up those attributes. And if you need to cast a lot of buff or debuff spells, you're definitely better off being able to take more actions in a single round. So, while it may seem counterintuitive to weaken your party to gain the upper hand, it can often be a good idea — and this constant push-and-pull keeps things lively.
World of Final Fantasy leaves nothing to chance; in order to appeal to the broadest possible set of gamers, it draws serious inspiration from the RPG franchise with the broadest appeal in the world. In other words, Pokémon. You acquire monsters for your combat stacks by capturing them, pokéball-style. Once captured, you can even evolve those creatures into more advanced forms — generally into other familiar Final Fantasy monsters as opposed to adult forms (though you'll find a few of those evolutions too, e.g. the chocobo line). Despite this brash Pokémon riff, the process nevertheless feels completely faithful to Final Fantasy: Your monsters each have a skill grid whose nodes you unlock through Ability Points earned in combat, just like in Final Fantasy X, XIII-2, and the upcoming XV.
The trappings of the game, however, are pure Final Fantasy. Honestly, this is the classic Final Fantasy homage Square has been trying to create since Final Fantasy IX. I mean, the first town you visit is Cornelia, where you take quests from Princess Sarah. And if that doesn't make it all clear enough, the music that accompanies this portion of the game comes directly from the original Final Fantasy. Your first meaningful fight happens with one of the series' three standard elemental summons: Shiva, Ifrit, or Ramuh. And every monster I've encountered or captured so far has come straight from the classic bestiary.
The one other heavy debt that World of Final Fantasy owes is to Kingdom Hearts. I mentioned that series in relation to the character designs, but the connection goes far deeper than that. Like Kingdom Hearts, World makes heavy use of Final Fantasy cameos and concepts; strip away the Disney references and replace them with Final Fantasy elements and you have a pretty good sense of what to expect. The plot centers around amnesia and mysterious beings and restoring the heroes' memory by traveling to whimsical worlds; heck, the bad guys' henchmen may be called Goblins, but with their inky features and glowing eyes they basically amount to Heartless.
I haven't played enough of World of Final Fantasy to know yet if it manages to avoid the irritating pitfalls that have bogged down Kingdom Hearts — though, in fairness, it'll probably take a few sequels until that becomes clear. As an homage to classic Final Fantasy, steeped in the series' lore and combat and skill mechanics that feel faithful yet fresh, though? World of Final Fantasy is great. It's a bit on the linear side so far, and I haven't encountered too many situations that will tax a veteran of the series. But approach it as an all-ages take on the franchise, a Final Fantasy that works for both newcomers and old-timers alike (albeit on different levels), and it's surprisingly great. Honestly, I have no idea why Square Enix has been so coy about the ins and outs of this game; there's nothing here to be ashamed of at all, and plenty to love.
I'll wrap up my playthrough of the game and put a final score on this review by the end of the week, but already I can offer World of Final Fantasy an enthusiastic endorsement for RPG fans of all stripes.