Fantasian's cookie-cutter narrative drags down an otherwise outstanding Apple Arcade RPG
Cliches for days
No words - just let me ask you one simple question: when you first laid eyes on Fantasian, did your minds immediately jump to a definition somewhere along the line of "this is basically Final Fantasy Lite"?
If the answer is yes, then I'm happy to inform you that you're right on the mark. For the most part, at least. As its title suggests, Fantasian is an all-new fantasy role-playing game developed for the Apple Arcade and published by independent Japanese studio Mistwalker. If that doesn't ring a bell, the studio is led by one Hironobu Sakaguchi, or as many gamers know him, the creator of Final Fantasy.
We've been taking this chunky mobile RPG for a spin over the past week or two, and after battling through swarms of adorably designed monsters, trekking through vast (digital) expanses and trying our level best to enjoy an amazingly (and startlingly) cliche narrative, we're finally ready to give our review.
A familiar face
Frankly, if you enjoy Final Fantasy-style aesthetics, then Fantasian probably gets a pass by default. Not only does it look absolutely bonkers for a mobile title, but the artistic pages it takes from its more prominent cousin provides an odd but interesting measure of familiarity. Heck, even the environments are the same - you've got towering dystopian cities that don't look too different from Midgar, quiet frontier towns in the desert and tranquil magical forests, just to name a few.
That goes for the monsters and enemies too, of course. You've got your usual array of dystopian RPG mobs, and the spread is actually quite impressive. From run-of-the-mill encounters like wild beasts and armoured mechs, to more amusing ones like a giant tree with gold coins growing from its branches, it's hard not to get even a little excited (and nostalgic) when you come across them.
Amusingly, the audio package is probably one of the few aspects where Fantasian doesn't feel exactly like Final Fantasy. Instead of intense guitar riffs that amp up the intensity of combat, Fantasian takes an approach that's more vibrant and playful, and in that sense, it feels like the kind of music you'd find in a Dragon Quest game.
That said, the game's aesthetic package is still excellent when judged in a vacuum, and both the animations and cutscenes feel much more lifelike and detailed than many other mobile RPGs. As such, it gets a full point from us here.
The gameplay has a few nice quirks
The other area where Fantasian gets a good score from me is in its gameplay. There are several minor flaws, but the game is otherwise pretty enjoyable. On the surface, it follows a similar formula as your run-of-the-mill JRPG - Sakaguchi-san himself said as much in our pre-release interview, but what it does have are a number of different quirks that bring breaths of fresh air into this otherwise overused gameplay format.
For example, you can actually curve and aim your attacks to hit multiple targets at once, and it's actually quite fun to try and nail all the enemies in a straight line. Not only does it make your attack more resource-efficient since you deal greater damage for the same MP cost, but it's one of those additions that makes perfect sense on a touch-screen display (the game also have controller support by the way). In a nutshell, it's quirky and undeniably novel, and that's perfect for spicing up an age-old gameplay formula.
Speaking of battles, you know how wild Pokemon jump out at you when you walk through tall grass, right? Well, Fantasian takes a similar route in terms of its random encounters, but it also provides you with a "Repel" of sorts. Once you make your way into the second or third stage of the game, the protagonist recovers his memories surrounding a portable device called the Dimengeon (short for Dimensional Dungeon).
Basically, this is a toggle that "seals" your wild encounters into a pocket dimension so you don't have to fight the monsters immediately. This helps you better enjoy the mood and story without getting disturbed by incessant random encounters.
However, what makes this device truly interesting is that you still get to fight the monsters that are sealed away for items and experience, and you can choose to do so at any time! The catch is that you'll be facing the entire swarm of sealed monsters in a single instance of battle - meaning you should reset the count often so you don't face a wave the size of a private army.
Yes, these two implements might not seem like much on their own, but when you factor them in with the other components of standard JRPG combat like monster typings, MP and "blockers", Fantasian's gameplay will start to show its true excellence, and suffice to say it quickly became my favourite part of the game.
Been there, done that
And so, here we are. Let's talk about the one big factor keeping Fantasian from being the smash hit mobile RPG that it should be: its disastrously cliche narrative. We kid you not - that's probably more of an understatement than an exaggeration.
To clarify, let us just rattle some of the tropes that it's guilty of using: amnesiac protagonist, female companion with mysterious powers and origins, journey of self-discovery and even has a malevolent god-like antagonist. At this point, you could probably figure out a solid 60-70% of how the narrative might progress, and I haven't actually touched on any specifics yet!
Still, for everyone's benefit, here's a little crash course into what Fantasian brings to the table. Basically, you play as a guy named Leo, who loses his memory after a mission to blow up a factory goes terribly wrong. Following that, you discover that you're apparently a super-experienced rebel operative working to defeat the mysterious robotic threat known as Mechteria.
You then end up teleporting into a frontier town called En, and together with a mysterious girl with magic powers named Kina, plus a prophetic vision from a local fortune teller, you set off to reclaim your memories and discover the truth about Mechteria. The whole premise is one where magic and machines are closely intertwined, and where have we seen that pairing before, eh?
Yes, it's cliche - almost unbearably so, and that's our point. To be entirely honest, it's as generic as Japanese RPG narratives come, and even if you were to say that it's done in the mold of old-style JRPGs, that's no excuse for a story that resembles "every other heroic fantasy RPG". We are kind of disappointed by the lack of creativity in this regard, and when you couple that with how long the game actually takes to build up the plot, we won't be surprised if you end up ditching the narrative entirely in favour of just beating up enemies.
A tale of two extremes
Building on that point, Fantasian is in quite an odd position when it comes to the overall scoring. On one hand. it can definitely put its money where its gameplay and aesthetics are, and on the other, I'm literally begging for a refund on the narrative.
It'd be a lot easier to grade this if Fantasian placed more emphasis on its gameplay rather than the story, but sadly that isn't the case. As such, I think it's only fitting to say that it's a game you'll really enjoy if you don't mind the slight occasional grind and going through the textbook fantasy hero story for like the billionth time over.