It's strange meeting old friends in new, unexpected surroundings – even more so if you've got a stack of monsters balanced on your head at the same time. Yet, as odd as this combination sounds, it's the main selling point for World of Final Fantasy, the latest spin-off from one of the most successful – and frequently most impenetrable – series, and the first entry in the franchise's 30th anniversary celebrations.
Developed by Tose and Square Enix and released last week for PS4 and the Vita handheld, World of Final Fantasy is a self-conscious throwback in ridiculously cute new clothes, one part Pokémon, the other Kingdom Hearts. It offers fans a chance to reconnect with some of their favorite characters from old games – who've been redrawn in an irresistibly cute Chibi-style – while fighting through a whole new world of apocalyptic plot-macguffins. It looks nothing like the original games but utterly encapsulates everything recognizable about them, it's overflowing with in-jokes without relying on you getting the reference, and it's aimed as much at lifelong fans as it is their children. The resulting mix is, on every level, a peculiar kind of balancing act – as frustrating as it is charming – and often both at once.
Your epic journey starts not with a bang but with a barista. Meet Lann, an archetypal Final Fantasy blabbermouth complete with obligatory spiky hair, as he sets off to the coffee shop where he works with Reynn, his serious-minded, equally predictable sister. On the way, what should be something startling – waking up to an inexplicably deserted city, encountering a mysterious stranger who tells you of your hidden powers, and being given access to a magical otherworld you've forgotten you came from – is handled with all the narrative propulsion of an intergalactic tax dispute. Nine Woods Hill, the city you woke up in, isn't just deserted – it feels like somewhere no one has ever lived.
It's only when you get to Grymoire, the vertical stack of floating continents strung together in space that make up the game's world, that the place starts to feels alive with possibility, like the best Final Fantasy games do. It might be a menu pretending to be a map, but it’s a beautiful and inviting one that looks like everything that your home city isn't. It’s here you go to explore, trap mirages (the game's name for the monsters that roam the land that you catch Pokémon-style) and stumble across a selection of iconic FF heroes styled in collectable figurine form.
The game picks its old stars with far more care than it tells its protagonists' story, and so the chance of meeting someone you knew from an old game always promises something to look forward to. You might be setting set out to rediscover your past, but it's never looked so adorably fresh.
Opening out with the world is the battle system, which stands as a brilliant example of how Final Fantasy reinvents itself while always staying recognizably connected to its past. You use the mirages you've caught to build a stack of up to three, which gives you access to skills, stat buffs and weaknesses. They level up with you, transform into new, stronger forms, and have unlockable skill trees, allowing you to customize your party's strengths for the steady stream of bosses that mark your progress. Who knew that putting a couple of monsters on your head before a fight could be so deep?
Of course, I wanted to catch them all – or at least I did until I had so many that I couldn't avoid noticing how similar they were, or wondering how long it would take to level them all up to a usable state. How do you balance a game where there are far more monsters than there are places to keep them, where you might, at any point, enter a battle riding an overpowered superbastard or with some lowly, freshly caught whelp on your head? It's a question the game has no real answer for, except more.
There's a grim inevitability about the way that nearly every dead end yields a treasure that somehow stops it feeling like a reward so much as an obligation.
It's the same with the sprawling dungeons. At first, they're playgrounds to explore, recognizable in style from past Final Fantasies, but like the music, they're remixed and somehow more evocative for the changes. World of Final Fantasy might be an old school RPG, but it's also good to discover that it isn't here to punish you: outside boss fights, you'll be resurrected without penalty if you stumble dumbly into a Marlboro and poison yourself to death. But even with their size, they suddenly start to shrink in your imagination as they litter your path with needless obstacles and obligatory fetch-quests to get items from areas you wanted to explore through choice, not necessity. There's a grim inevitability about the way that nearly every dead end yields a treasure that somehow stops it feeling like a reward so much as an obligation. It's something that all the charm in the world can't keep you from noticing.
It's typical of how, for a game based on celebrating the past, World of Final Fantasy is at its best when it uses its inspiration to look forward – something it does most effortlessly with its old faces rather than its new cast. Lann and Reynn are amnesiacs, but they've lost more than their memories – they don't feel like they belong in the world that's been built to house them. Worse, their constant barrage of inanities makes it impossible to ever lose yourself in their company or the world. Somehow, despite the fact they're the only characters with a recognizably human form in a game full of Chibi-people, Grymoire's a place where the furniture seems more vivid and real than either of them.
But it's not the new heroes' clumsiness or the familiarity of the Cactuars, Moogles and Chocobos that makes Final Fantasy's old mascots come alive: It's seeing how much they've changed. Squall's sullen scowl and Sephiroth's melodramatic flounce aren’t copies of things you already played – they're gestures that have been reimagined in a new shape. Best of all, they're fleeting visitors who never outstay their welcome – or are visitable through choice – and always move the game on. In contrast, your constantly changing cast of mirages can't disguise the growing overfamiliarity of the new characters you spend most of your time with. I never did find myself caring all that much about recovering Lann and Reynn's memories. I was far more hooked seeing my own turned into something new.