"The struggle to find footing with all of these opposite forces at play makes Maxima feel weaker than it might have been ... However, there's a solid game underneath all of those unstable quirks."
World of Final Fantasy Maxima is an expansion/rerelease of the 2016 RPG World of Final Fantasy. It should be noted that this is my first exposure to the game, so I'm not writing this review as someone who can easily point out or compare the differences between the two versions. A simple Google search will do the trick if that's what you're curious about.
In Maxima, you start the game as amnesiac twins Lann and Reynn. The duo discover that they have the ability to control Mirages — extremely cute versions of classic Final Fantasy monsters. Naturally, they embark on a quest in the neighboring fantasy world of Grymoire to not only gain more Mirages but to hopefully recover their missing memories. Of course, in true Final Fantasy fashion, trouble looms on the horizon with an evil federation threatening Grymoire's populace. As they progress on their journey and uncover hidden truths, the twins discover that what they initially believed to be a simple task is anything but.
In a lot of respects, I've come to view Maxima as a game of extreme opposites. I think the most obvious example of this can be found in Maxima's visuals. The graphics for the environments are quite beautiful and realistic but in a way that makes the dissonant character designs stand out all the more as the twins freely change between their Jiant forms, resembling what a human might look like in this game's world, and their Lilikin forms. Lilikins are the predominant humans of Grymoire and their designs and sizes are super-deformed. Think of a Funko Pop bobblehead someone breathed life into and you get the general idea. Such an art style is quite subjective, and I could see gamers viewing it as either cute or nightmare-inducing depending on their personal preferences. For me, the Lilikin designs made it hard to take portions of the story seriously even when the game intends them to be. I often kept Lann and Reynn in their Jiant forms simply because those character designs don't bother me as much. Still, the potentially visually-offputting Lilikin are the predominant forms you see throughout Grymoire.
Also, in the story cinematics, it makes no difference whether Lann or Reynn are present in Jiant or Lilikin form. The form the player picks for them is immaterial in this case; I'd have the characters mostly in Jiant form only for a cinema to suddenly make them Lilikin. Case in point: I talked to Celes and Cid four times following a story mission and, for no reason whatsoever, the twins would switch between Lilikin and Jiant every time. That odd visual dissonance in Maxima reduces any cohesion between the cutscenes and when the player gains control. Story cinemas are presented with either in-game graphics or anime cutscenes, which arguably furthered the visual dissonance, though both were well done.
To make Maxima's role as a spinoff to a venerable franchise even more apparent, many of the Lilikins of note in the story are alternate universe versions of Final Fantasy characters. Though I'm not a fan of their visual presentation, I did love getting the chance to see some familiar faces again. Among the fan service cameos are the Final Fantasy characters everyone knows from other crossovers such as the Warrior of Light, Cloud, and Lightning. But I actually have to give Maxima credit for also including characters you don't often see outside of their respective games. Watching Refia, Rydia, Faris, Edgar, Celes, Shelke, Vivi, Eiko, and Sherlotta pop up made this extremely geeky Final Fantasy fan truly smile!
After a Final Fantasy cameo character's role in the story is more or less done, you can see further plot details with them, called Interventions, by accessing an area called the Tea Room. Interventions range from ridiculously juvenile to heartwarming or hilarious depending on their content, though my biggest complaint with them by far was their short length. Truth be told, I ended up getting attached to these versions of the characters and wanted to see them in the plot more (even if I had to constantly kick myself to stop asking how their tiny bodies could support their big heads). One of the few differences I know between the original version of the game and Maxima is that the update includes new characters Noctis, Zack, Cecil, and Serah in post-game content. Noctis is relegated to a fishing mini-game without any real story segment, while the other three all have their own story quests to view.
Even Maxima's story feels torn between two opposing sides. On one hand, you've a fairly straightforward monster collecting plot about a brother and sister on an adventure combating an evil empire. There are even Moogle Pirates and a book-loving robotic Cid. But in the blink of an eye, the story takes on some really disturbing and dark notes with a bittersweet twinge that permeates even the game's True Ending. I couldn't help but feel like the writers weren't sure which target audience they were ultimately aiming for. Much of the game is geared towards younger gamers, but the homages to past games through cameos and more mature plot twists made me question just who exactly they thought would be playing Maxima. Caught between these two identities, Maxima's plot doesn't quite enthrall either of the intended audiences.
The struggle to find footing with all of these opposite forces at play makes Maxima feel weaker than it might have been had it just chosen one specific direction and audience to focus on. However, there's a solid game underneath all of those unstable quirks.
Maxima's gameplay is pretty standard fare if you're familiar with traditional JRPGs. Both forms for Lann and Reynn make up a party with groupings of two Mirages each, bringing the party total up to six members. However, individual party members are considerably weaker so early in the game you're let in on the secret of stacking. By placing characters on top of other characters according to height, you pool their respective health and abilities, creating stronger-tiered attacks and skills in the process. It sounds crazy, but the stacking tactic is surprisingly well thought out and a strong battle mechanic to take advantage of. I had pretty potent teams once I found Mirages that worked best when stacked with Lann and Reynn!
Gaining Mirages varies depending on the creatures themselves, and learning how to Imprism them as future allies is rather cleverly implemented. The skill branches for the creatures are easy to follow and fill out too. In fact, I'd spend time at every new area just to collect more Mirages in order to see what their skills and abilities were. I like that during battle you can also switch between the more action-oriented Default battle system with its shortcuts and the Classic battle mode which resembles the traditional turn-based menus of old-school Final Fantasy games. My biggest complaint with the battle system is largely that the time between turns is quite slow even when the default settings are at maximum speed. I'm grateful for the game's Fast Forward function, as I used it in every battle.
Outside of battle, Mirages often have a useful area ability to find hidden items or gain access to new areas. A lot of incentive is given for players to keep a varied pool of Mirages on hand to help fully clear out dungeons. Speaking of dungeons, I found that they were of a decent length overall with none being noticeably too long or too short to traverse.
Many of the Final Fantasy cameo characters, like Balthier and Yuna, take on the role of Champions and can be called upon in battle through two different methods. The first is by using Champion Medals, which are essentially summon spells. After a prerequisite condition is met, you can call upon one of the Champions you have a Medal equipped for to aid you in battle. My only real complaint with this system is that it seemed almost arbitrary or random when you could actually fill up the gauge to summon Champions. The second method is the Champion Jewels system. It works as an Avatar-like battle system. By equipping a Jewel, Lann or Reynn in their Lilikin form can then transform into one of the Champions and use their skills in battle. This system had its fair share of both strengths and weaknesses, since you can't use the Champion Medals with it or summon super-sized Mega Mirages, so I tended to not use the Champion Jewel system during my playthrough even though Maxima offered characters like Firion and Y'shtola as Champion Jewels. However, the Champions show just how varied and detailed Maxima's battle planning and strategies could be.
I was pleasantly surprised to learn that late-game minigames are also skippable, so if you're like me and just want to delve into the story, that is a definite plus! If you're not like me and enjoy minigame challenges towards the end of a game, you can still opt to play them so you don't miss out. I think more games should give that option when throwing in completely new gameplay mechanics at such a late stage in the plot.
Overall, while I thought Maxima's plot did have inconsistency in regard to the target audience it was trying to go for, I'll admit that I became surprisingly invested in Lann and Reynn's adventure the closer I got to the ending. I even teared up as it headed towards the True Ending, which isn't something that happens too often for me...so I have to give the game kudos there. The characters grew on me more than I was expecting them to when I initially started playing Maxima.
Perhaps the most endearing thing about World of Final Fantasy Maxima is its sense of humor and tongue-in-cheek quips. I was so amused every time something complicated happened and the game would be quick to explain it as "God did it." or "Just don't think too hard on that, okay?" The Bestiary and Character Description Notes were full of self-aware commentary and delightful to read. I'd often track down new Mirages so that I'd see what remarks I'd get for their intro. While I found that type of humor rather amusing, I thought that most of the humorous dialogue (particularly Lann's lines) fell flat. Granted, humor is rather subjective, but the meta Final Fantasy jokes at least did the trick in keeping me entertained throughout my playthrough.
All in all, World of Final Fantasy Maxima is an enjoyable game with a lot of heart despite not having an obviously clear intended audience in mind. Personally, I had fun playing the game and grew attached to its characters, so what more can I really ask for in an RPG? To take a cue from Tama, who pretty much broke my brain every time I tried to think of how they came up with her way of speech, not much at the-all.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.