Fantasian has proven to be a tremendously challenging game to review. It’s an Apple Arcade game, so you don’t exactly need advice on whether or not you should buy it if you already subscribe to the service. When it first launched, it was only the first part of the game and I didn’t think it was necessarily fair or a good idea to judge an RPG on its first half. And I’m glad I waited, because the second part really did change my opinion on Fantasian as a whole. There are still bits coming in future updates, but the main game is here and I suppose I have to do this now.
The big claim to fame for Fantasian is that it’s the latest and possibly last full-on RPG from the man widely recognized as the creator of Final Fantasy, Hironobu Sakaguchi. It is also the latest and possibly last complete game soundtrack from Nobuo Uematsu, the composer behind the first nine Final Fantasy games and many other titles. There are other Final Fantasy veterans on the team, including one who seems to have a great deal of influence on the design of Fantasian. Besides the star power, the game also benefits from a gorgeous, unique look thanks to its extensive use of elaborate dioramas for its backgrounds.
With all of that, you would perhaps expect this game to play out like a Final Fantasy game. And sometimes it does. Turn-based battles, bits of melodrama, and the way it feels to move around and explore. Uematsu’s music has that old familiar ring to it. Even its broad structure, with a heavily linear first part and an open second half, follows the Final Fantasy beats. But sometimes it isn’t Final Fantasy. And the deeper you go into the game, particularly in its second part, the more it diverges from that game in form and feel.
And that, my friends, is what has left me in a real pickle for the last few days since I toppled the final boss with just under sixty hours on the clock. Fantasian is, in a lot of ways, a brilliant game. A lot of careful attention has gone into its design, and in terms of production values you really can’t argue much with it. I mostly had an excellent time with it, and even found myself thrilled at some points in a way that I haven’t been with most other RPGs. It’s amazing. And I think most people will hate it if they actually try to finish it.
Yes, I know. That is an incredibly odd thing to say. Let me explain. Fantasian is, quite simply, one of the most difficult JRPGs I have played in the last couple of decades. It’s not difficult in an opaque way like the SaGa games. It’s difficult in the sense that it is jam-packed full of bosses that are half puzzle, half “Final Boss”-tier tenacious drag-outs. You should always have the tools you need to beat each of them, but you’ll have to figure out which you need and then use them perfectly to succeed. And again, this isn’t just the last boss. It’s most of the back half of the game. You thought that Fire Lizard was a pain in the first part of Fantasian? Buckle up. Every day is Final Exam day in Fantasian‘s second half.
The only way, and I cannot stress that ‘only‘ enough, you will succeed is by doing your homework on the boss’s behavior and respec’ing your characters’ Growth Maps in just the right way to topple your foe. Growth Maps are introduced late in first part of the game, and they work more or less as you would think. They’re skill trees, basically. Luckily, you can respec at no cost. You’ll be doing it a lot. If you think you can fire and forget with your Growth Maps, or that you have any sort of flexibility whatsoever in how to handle these bosses, think again. Each one is a puzzle, and you either figure out its solution and win or keep on failing. Sort out the skills and the party members you need, and when you need to use them. You will need to swap characters out mid-battle for many bosses, too.
If you’re into this kind of thing, it’s exhilarating. I haven’t been bullied this hard by a JRPG in a long while, and I wouldn’t have ever thought it would come from an Apple Arcade game by the father of Final Fantasy. I had to seriously think about all of the tools in my box and devise complicated, custom strategies for each of these boss battles. Trying to play like a meathead will drop you on your rear within a turn or two. Truly, these encounters were built for veterans of the genre. The problem, I suppose, is for those who do not fit in that rather narrow scope. There isn’t much in the entire Final Fantasy series that would have prepared you for the likes of what Fantasian throws out. If that’s your background, it’s like going from go-karts to Formula One racers in terms of challenge.
If I had to guess, this can be laid at the feet of Toshirou Tsuchida, one of those aforementioned veterans of Final Fantasy and Square Enix. He was involved with many games during his time there, but the most relevant may have been his turn as director of Front Mission 2, 3, and 4. He also served as a director on Final Fantasy X, and as the battle director on Final Fantasy XIII. If you’ve played some or all of those games, you can see how he appreciates making puzzle-like battle systems and encounters. I don’t know if he was holding himself back a bit on those games or if someone else was reeling him in, but Fantasian feels like his design theory taken to its most extreme.
Well, how you feel about the difficulty is going to be a deeply personal thing, I think. I’m not trying to pump up the game to give it some hardcore cred or anything. If you don’t like frustratingly difficult games where you may very well have to repeat lengthy battles until you figure out the exact way the designer meant for you to beat them, feel free to play Fantasian until you get your fill and bounce without shame. If you revel in that stuff, hop in. I think it is the most significant factor in whether or not you’ll like this game or hate it.
What can I say about the rest of it? The production values are outstanding. Just a jaw-droppingly lovely game with a soundtrack that proves Uematsu’s still got some fire in his belly. The story has its moments, but surprisingly I found it to be the weakest part of the game. I never really got all that invested in where it was going, and the characters certainly don’t live up to what I would expect from a team with these credentials. Some of the side-quests and vignettes are good, though.
Oh heck, I didn’t even talk about the Dimengeon Battles system. This bit is enormously clever, and I hope it inspires a lot of other JRPGs to do something similar. Basically, once you’ve already fought a type of enemy once, you can stuff subsequent random encounters with it into a pocket dimension. Whenever you feel like it, you can pop into your pocket dimension and take on all of those enemies you stuffed into it in one big slobberknocker of a battle. Special gimmicks are used in these battles to make the idea of fighting thirty enemies at once a little less frightening. It’s also critical for getting underleveled party members back up to speed in the second half of the game. I declare Dimengeons to be both creative and neat, and the game does not fail to explore their possibilities.
Let’s try to pull this all together. Fantasian is an intricately-designed JRPG from a highly experienced team who may have overshot a teeny-tiny bit in terms of what they expect from the average player. It has a lot of interesting ideas, but like the game’s story, they don’t always coalesce in a satisfying way. It is unspeakably beautiful artistically, both in terms of sights and sounds. It is a lengthy adventure, and it changes things up at just the right moments to keep you motivated. It is very difficult, frustrating even. But it’s not generally unfair about that, nor is it mysterious about what you need to do. Fantasian is a very demanding experience, and you really have to be in love with its mechanics to put up with it all. Heaven knows the narrative isn’t going to keep you motivated. Fantasian is an absolute masterpiece in most regards, and yet I find myself struggling to recommend it.