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Interview: Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi's Fantasian is an Apple Arcade exclusive

By Aaron Yip - 19 Mar 2021

Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi's Fantasian is an Apple Arcade exclusive

Image: Mistwalker

Fantasian at a glance has everything a JRPG fan will find familiar. It takes place in a lush fantasy world, features turn-based combat and tells a grandiose tale of good versus evil. It is after all, a game made by Hironobu Sakaguchi – the creator of the Final Fantasy series and also the man behind the genesis of JRPGs (Japanese role-playing games) that we know of today. Fantasian even reunited Sakaguchi with famed composer and frequent collaborator, Nobuo Uematsu.

Fantasian will also be available on the Apple Arcade platform, making it only the third mobile game series, that Sakaguchi’s Mistwalker studio is working on. Actually, to call Fantasian a mobile game is a misnomer as it will be available across all Apple Arcade devices – that means Mac, iOS and Apple TV. It could also be Apple Arcade’s first real blockbuster title, a boost to the current library of games there that while, in all honesty, decent and entertaining, don’t quite have the kind of triple-AAA lustre that we are used to seeing on PC and consoles.

But what makes Fantasian a unique JRPG is clear from the screenshot below:

Fantasian’s game world is actually built from tiny, handcrafted dioramas that give it a distinctly unique charm. I’ve had the chance to chat with Sakaguchi (over Zoom, of course) to find out more about the game, quash a long-running myth (hint: it’s about Final Fantasy), and if there’s even a remote chance of a second reunion of him, Uematsu and Akira Toriyama.


The idea for Fantasian happened because Sakaguchi replayed Final Fantasy IV again

Three years ago, Sakaguchi and a few old colleagues from Square Enix were going back down memory lane and play Final Fantasy IV together. The game reminded him of how much he loved the JRPG genre and inspired him to go back to his roots. So, if you’re familiar with the JRPG genre trope, Fantasian will have NPCs that you can speak to and get quests, dungeon crawlings, and of course random monster encounters. Which brings us to the battle system…


Sakaguchi gave the game a familiar battle system with a twist

Fantasian features a system that twists how players deal with random monster encounters. Unlike classic Final Fantasy and other traditional JRPGs, the game lets you deal with random encounters later…at your convenience later. Called the Dimengeon (a wordplay between “dimension” and “dungeon”), it sends the monsters that you encounter to an alternate dimension. You can then jump into a Dimengeon when you want to and wipe them all out at once.


The premise of Fantasian is very classic “Final Fantasy” too

According to Sakaguchi, Fantasian begins in a realm governed by machines, in which the protagonist that you play, called Leo, causes a massive explosion at a hybrid magic-tech factory, resulting in his memory loss. Following the one memory left to him — a vision of a young woman — he is transported to a dusty frontier town called En. There, he is reunited with the girl from his memory, Kina.

In an effort to recover Leo’s memories and find their own destinies, the two set off on an adventure together. During their travels, Leo’s past is revealed bit by bit as are the many layers that make up the game world. Within this multi-dimensional universe, the balance of “Chaos and Order” becomes a key factor in the struggle for these realms and the machinations of the gods who wish to control them.


The reason for pursuing handmade visuals through real-world dioramas

The story and themes of Fantasian are “kind”, “heartwarming” and “uplifting”. Sakaguchi felt that dioramas as a handmade visual expression have this very unique charm, warmth and beauty that you really can't replicate with any other medium or visual effects. As a game on Apple Arcade, he also considered that the game will be played on devices with a touch interface such as iPads and iPhones, giving it a kind of synergy or poetic beauty in having you using your hands to control and manipulate these characters and environments that have also been created the hands of artisans.

There are certain limitations to a world crafted with dioramas, and Sakaguchi explained that there are parts where CG are used to create “movement” post effects. For example, the doors that players open into a room. That said, the team want to be careful not to add too much post effects as they felt that takes away the natural charm and beauty of the dioramas.


Fantasian isn’t Sakaguchi’s swansong

Or maybe. In any case, Sakaguchi was keen to stress that Fantasian was created out of his love for the JRPG genre and a homage to his roots as a creator and designer. He just wanted to create a game that he ‘really really’ likes. But he’s also keenly aware of his mortality, especially in regard to the health of his long-time friend and collaborator Nobuo Uematsu (more on that later). With the development time taking an average three years to create a game like Fantasian, Sakaguchi felt that he would likely be taking a step back from day-to-day, operational, responsibilities and take on a more leadership or mentor role.


No, he didn’t call it “Final Fantasy” because the old Square was about to go bankrupt

As the creator of one of the most beloved game franchises of all time, no sessions with Sakaguchi go without mentioning Final Fantasy. And in a “did you know” moment, Sakaguchi wants to put to bed the long-running myth that he titled the game “Final” because it’s the last game that Square will be able to develop and publish due to financial difficulties. Here’s a full verbatim with some edits for context of what he said:

“Of course, I don't intend to create games from I guess a really negative space and in terms of Final Fantasy, Square being on the brink of bankruptcy, I'm not sure where that story came from. I can't really confirm how authentic it is if Square really was on the brink of bankruptcy but what I can say with regards to Final Fantasy, the reason why it is called Final Fantasy was something more personal to me. I was developing games and could not really create a game that was a financial success. Nothing clicked and worked. So, I thought to myself, maybe I just don't have what it takes to develop games and this – Final Fantasy – will be the last one, I'll put everything into Final Fantasy and if if doesn't sell maybe I'll switch careers and do something else. So, you know it in a way, it was kind of my, what I thought might be the final game in my career”.


It’s unlikely we will ever see a “Chrono Trigger” dream team again

Many considered Chrono Trigger to be the pinnacle of video games in terms of storytelling, visuals and music. It’s also developed by what many JRPG fans considered to be the dream team of Hironobu Sakaguchi (writer), Nobuo Uematsu (composer) and Akira Toriyama (artist). You would probably also know Toriyama as the creator and artist behind Dragon Ball. The trio’s last collaboration was the Xbox 360 exclusive, Blue Dragon, which was released back in 2006. Unfortunately, Sakaguchi felt that with Toriyama now in his mid-60s, and with Uematsu still resting to recover from an unspecified illness, it’s unlikely we will ever get to see another super collaboration between the three. As a matter of fact, Sakaguchi also added that Fantasian might be Uematsu’s last major game score due to his health issues.

Fantasian does not have an official release date yet – although it’s listed as “Coming Soon” on Apple Arcade. It will be playable on iOS, Mac, and Apple TV, and Sakaguchi says that, aside from the touch controls, the game wasn’t tailored specifically to Apple Arcade. Instead, the goal was to create a console-like experience for mobile devices. It will be a “really comprehensive” JRPG experience, he said, before we closed off.

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