Fantasian is one of the best games I’ve played all year. I would not recommend playing Fantasian unless you belong to a very specific subset of RPG players.
That’s maybe a bit of an odd start for a review, I must admit, but that’s the same challenge I’ve run headfirst into when attempting to articulate my thoughts on what might well be industry legend Hironobu Sakaguchi’s final project. How do you tackle a game where aspects of its core design will be poison for a wider audience, even if those decisions aren’t inherently poor– and, in fact, might even be welcomed by a specific type of player? Challenge on its own doesn’t make a game bad, and I believe there’s a space in the industry for RPGs of all types. The problem, instead, comes from how much of Fantasian might seem to appeal to a wider audience, only for one or two key design philosophies to severely limit who will end up enjoying the title as a whole.
It’s a weird situation for a game to be in, and even more baffling considering the platforms that it has released on. Fantasian is an Apple Arcade exclusive, only playable on Apple devices – primarily mobile platforms, like iPhone and iPad. While I played through the game on an Apple TV, one would normally assume that a game exclusive to mostly mobile platforms would have a much more forgiving difficulty curve.
But enough talking around it – Fantasian is a very, very difficult RPG. Going through the linear early portion of the game, you won’t have too much trouble making it to the clearly World of Ruin-inspired latter half, where players are instead tasked with tackling the challenges at their own pace. In this second part of the game, players are given more or less the entire world for them to explore and can tackle a variety of quests in any order. While the game eases you into the battle system and how each character plays in the first 15 to 20 hours of the story, the last 30 to 40 hours expect near-perfect execution when it comes to tackling bosses. Certain bosses will require very specific strategies using unique party combinations – and while it’s a lot of fun figuring out how the game wants you to tackle a boss, simply knowing the intended solution isn’t enough to make these battles a cakewalk. It’s more like you need to find the opening to give yourself a chance at victory in the first place, rather than finding a catch-all solution to prevent you from having trouble.
Each of the game’s boss gimmicks are unique, but many of them take into account timing, positioning, & the trajectory of your attacks. One of the basic elements of Fantasian’s battle system is that while melee attacks will shout out in a straight line – magic can be curved, offering you the ability to bypass groups of enemies. While some melee attacks can pierce, other enemy types can block piercing attacks from passing through them. Certain bosses will even employ mechanics that will block attacks unless properly aimed and timed. One memorable side boss requires players to make use of a certain character’s ability to vacuum up mobs into a location that he sets down on the battlefield, so you can attack the boss without running afoul of his explosive friends. If you attack them, your entire team will take a ton of damage. Another requires you to match up your elemental attacks with the color of the knights stationed behind him to prevent the damage coming out from the encounter to be too much to handle.
Every boss has a gimmick like this, and no two mechanics overstay their welcome. Even ideas that might be reused in later encounters are never quite the same, and when you’re offered the opportunity to battle bosses a second time in later sidequests, they’re given a new spin to make the encounters feel fresh again. In practice, every battle is a puzzle, and you’re forced to consider the right tools – the right party composition and equipment – for the job. This isn’t especially challenging at first, but the further into the game that you get, the more ruthless the challenge becomes and the more pitch-perfect your strategy needs to be. By the time you’re into quests that ask for your party to be in your mid to late 40s, the game’s challenge skyrockets, and it never really lets up.
Again, I personally never found that to be a problem, but it stands out when so much more of the game would clearly appeal to players that might otherwise only want to play a game with a much less stark difficulty, as seen in the game’s opening hours. Fantasian’s world, for example, is made up almost entirely of 3D-scanned dioramas – a unique take on the pre-rendered backgrounds of the PS1-era Final Fantasies. Memories – short VN sections that act much like the dreams from Lost Odyssey – offer some beautiful backstory to the world and the main characters, and accentuate some of the most powerful moments of the game’s story. While Fantasian’s story features its bleak moments, the core of its identity is one of the connections we share with those around us... a much more heartwarming story than the incredible difficulty of the combat might suggest. It’s a bit of a disconnect, to be blunt about it. You simply wouldn’t expect a classically-styled RPG from the father of Final Fantasy to be as ruthless as Fantasian turned out to be.
I loved Fantasian, even if parts of its story might’ve stumbled. Its inventive combat and boss fights gripped me, while the characters and the overall message behind the story did manage to leave an impact. Adventuring through the world of Vibra, and beyond, won’t be one I’ll be forgetting anytime soon… but would I have managed to enjoy it as much if I wasn’t enamored by its challenge? I don’t think so, especially when I see impressions elsewhere plagued by players wanting to quit as they face increasingly difficult boss fights, ones that dilute the portions of the game that they have enjoyed. While I don’t think it’s the fault of the game on its own, it's abundantly clear that expectations were never properly set. Though I was surprised by the challenge that awaited me, I was more than willing to abide by it. I wouldn’t blame anyone that felt differently.
What did put a hamper on my enjoyment were some technical issues. I didn’t keep a running count, but the game froze and crashed on me many more times than I would’ve expected, especially for a product published by Apple of all companies. While I might’ve assumed that could’ve been an isolated issue with the Apple TV 4K, others on the game’s subreddit have noted similar issues on iOS proper. Ultimately I never lost much progress thanks to the game’s generous checkpoints and autosave, but it still took me out of the experience whenever it did happen. Hopefully these technical issues will be sorted out in due time, though I would’ve preferred if they hadn’t reared their head in the first place.
Even if you are the target audience for Fantasian, it’s because of these technical issues – and a few choice pieces of remaining content waiting to be added to the game – that I hesitate to offer a genuine recommendation just yet. Fantasian is a fantastic RPG, and will probably be a strong contender for GOTY deliberations later this year. Though it might not hurt to wait for a few patches for lingering issues to be resolved, and to consider if you’re up for the challenge that the game will provide.