Ridiculous as it sounds, Dissidia: Final Fantasy contains an actual story. Do not worry too much about it though as the plot is basically none-canon and isn't particularly compelling. Still, as far as storyline in fighting games goes it is pretty good - though somewhat predictable (something to do about feuding gods and crystals needed to save the world - shocking!). Like any other fighting games, completing each character arc will complete the overall story arc from the different perspective of its different character. Enjoy the story for what it is and you will find yourself enjoying the game more, which I did.
Dissidia features a total of 22 characters, eleven heroes and eleven villains, one each from Final Fantasy through Final Fantasy X, plus a heroine from Final Fantasy XI and a villain from Final Fantasy XII (screw the haters, it is a great game and one I enjoyed far far more than Final Fantasy X). Quite why there isn't a hero from Final Fantasy XII is puzzling - I was looking forward to shooting bolts from sky pirate Balthier's shotgun (screw the haters - it is a lovely game). Still the line up is impressive with characters that ought to please the majority of Final Fantasy fandom, though I do wish for a bit more.
Dissidia's gameplay is pretty difficult to describe to an average JRPG fan seeing that is is basically nothing like the traditional Final Fantasy gameplay many have come to either admire or loathe. Battles are in real time and allows for free roaming, something that turn-based RPG exclusive gamers will have to get used to (not surprising considering this is an Advent Children 'simulator') and requires twitch response. Unlike most arcade fighting games, battle takes place on a fully three dimensional field map and can occasionally get very hectic and confusing as characters soar around. It may look difficult in the videos, but less than an hour into the game and I've already found the title to be very accessible. If anything at all, it is actually feels like the Dragon Ball game there never was. Bizarre that it took another franchise to get it right, but there you go.
Two types of attacks are available, one which allows you to 'steal' the opponents BP (brave points). Another is a standard attack, which you use to reduce their HP (health points). There is a catch - you need to have BP to attack and opponent, meaning you will need to chain the different attacks together. Press O to execute the Bravery attack, which steals your opponents BP, then press the square button to execute the HP attack. Before you moan, the game is a bit more complex than that and while button mashing O and square alternatively may get you through the first couple of fights, you will not be winning plenty with that sort of strategy.
One of the more advance gameplay element here is the EX Mode. This works by collecting EX Cores and EX Force to fill it. Once filled, allows the player to enter EX Mode (R + square button). This mode boost your characters stats temporarily - for example Cecil will alternate between his Dark Knight and Paladin form, Sephiroth to his one-winged angel form and Terra to her Esper form. Whilst in this mode, the character can perform EX Burst or 'super moves' as Square Enix aptly puts it (e.g. Limit Break). These are available by pressing the square button when the button appears on screen, allowing you to execute a special attacks by pressing a combination of buttons ala God of War QTE mode.
EXP (for levelling up), AP and Gils (money) can be gained from battles, one of the few Final Fantasy RPG elements that has been made available here. Each characters maintains their own EXP levels, though equipments bought or found can be shared. The equipments, armour and accessories or each characters can also be customised before each battle, though this should be expected in every modern fighting game. Items can be bought and sold via the customization menu, while PP points (gained whether you lose or win) can be used to unlock bonus items such as icons, additional characters and alternative costumes. New moves are unlocked and can be equipped to the character's skillset. These skills can be mastered with AP gained while the abilities are equipped. Completing as many battle is a necessity to unlock more characters, costumes and items, using the points gained in each battle and story mode.
The story modes are divided between the characters you play, and are also categorised in difficulty. If I remember correctly, Cloud and Cecil's story missions are the 'easiest' and Tidus and Firion's merely 'easy', so I suggest going through those first. The different characters stories are intertwined between each other and occasionally overlap, so it makes sense to play through all of them. Each story are further divided into chapters, with each chapters featuring a tiled gameboard which sort or a substitute for a world map, where limited amount of Destiny Points are set aside to progress through. Enemies and loots are littered on the map, and engaging each one will consume a DP. Bonus DP can be gained by satisfying certain criteria with select matches, for example by defeating the opponent or achieving EX Mode within a time frame.
Visually, Dissidia is stunning. Characters are modelled with a reasonably high amount polygons. Obviously the lack of geometrical detail of the arena themselves helps a lot, but with the amount of speed going around you will be hard pressed to notice. Character animations are fluid and with great overall detail. It actually looks very much like Kingdom Hearts on the PS2, which I found impressive stylistically and visually. This is easily the best looking portable Final Fantasy game yet, besting Crisis Core, and actually coming close to the fluidity and graphical quality of God of War: Chains of Olympus. My biggest complain is while the environment is destructible, they sometimes 'heal' over time. It is unnerving and I rather they have left it alone. Still the environment can be used to the player's advantage. For example knock your opponents into the war allows you to build up your Bravery points or add-on to the HP attack. Walls can also be scaled which allows for some good sneak attack.
The score is naturally based on the various Final Fantasy and their character themes. They've been rearranged and remixed obviously, but if you are a veteran Final Fantasy gamer you will recognise them immediately. Other than that, there is nothing much else to add. It would be nice if a totally new score be created from the ground up, but fan service was in needing to be served and serve well they did.
Due to the amount of customisation, available characters, unlockables, multiplayer (local only) and chapters, the replayability of this title is pretty high. I am guessing that there is close to 100 hours of gaming to be had here if you are a completest and wishes to unlock everything. Different characters have different traits, most of the time true to their personality and signature fighting style obtained in their respective canon titles. Firion, the protagonist of Final Fantasy II, works best with strategist and those who love to hide and shoot thanks to his range attacks, where as characters like Cloud or Squell works well as melee fighters. There is a good amount of variation between the different characters allowing for different style of gameplay. As a bonus, Dissidia also has support for local wireless play (ad-hoc), though not having infrastructure meant that I have no way of testing the multiplayer mode sadly (you can actually play online via the PS3 ad-hoc party but I haven't tested this).
I personally believe that Dissidia: Final Fantasy is a well defined portable title. You can pick it up and have a go for a couple of minutes, unlike say Monster Hunter Freedom Unite, which requires a delicate amount of time wasting to get things done. Like the aforementioned title, Dissidia lacks a compelling story - but that's okay because the gameplay is damn well near perfect. Sure this is more of a fan service than anything else, but if you are into mash-ups you will definitely want to check this. You will not be getting your favourite Final Fantasy remade, but here's one with for all the fanboys and fangirls (and others) on one silver polished platter - as long as you enjoy fighting games that is.
Dissidia: Final Fantasy is out now in North America. The European version will be released next week. A special edition version will also be available. Expect to see the title on the PSN store once the PSPgo is released.