After the debacle that was Final Fantasy All the Bravest, it's certainly easy to write off Square Enix's free-to-play mobile efforts. At a first glance everything about Final Fantasy Record Keeper looks similar to the shameless ATB setup - a traditional 16-bit inspired FF battle setup punctuated with a simplistic input interface and more modern FF characters - but beyond that, it couldn't be more different.
The title gives you a little bit of story justification for the nostalgia-driven worlds-collide mash-up that the game is. The player character is the only major all-original member of the game's cast, and is tasked with assisting a scholarly Moogle in preserving the records of past battles and glories - thus the title's names.
Herein lies Record Keeper's nostalgia-scratching hook - seeing classic battles recreated in this simple system. For FF7 on, the joy comes more from seeing characters like Cloud and Tifa reimagined as FF6-style sprites. Iconic enemies, such as FF7's infamous laser-countering Guard Scorpion boss, or Rufus at the top of ShinRa tower, are recreated in sprite-form too, mimicing the more detailed Yoshitaka Amano inspired enemy art from the SNES FFs.
The loop of the game is pretty simple - enter a painting, fight through a series of encounters, reap rewards, better equip yourself with said rewards, repeat. Character progression here doesn't take a leaf from any particular FF, but instead fashions its own broad representation of FF's style.
At a base level each character has a regular attack, two magic attacks, and a special attack that functions like a Limit Break or Overdrive. Magic isn't governed by MP, but a number of uses per dungeon - a basic offensive spell, for instance, might be able to be used 4 times in a dungeon, with you needing to exit the dungeon or 'camp' to earn more uses. On occasion, enemies may drop a potion that restores a use or two to moves mid-battle.
Quitting a dungeon or camping isn't an easy choice, as both carry a cost. Any battle you enter costs stamina, which replenishes at a generous rate, but not so generous it's never a worry. A smart player will want to spend their stamina, which increases in maximum as you progress through the core dungeons, wisely. Camping costs Mythril, arguably the most valuable resource in the game.
Mythril is used for a variety of things including camping, restoring stamina and purchasing more inventory space. Most vitally, it's also used for buying a random draw from a gacha style machine that provides high quality equipment the player will need to survive more difficult battles.
It's easy to cringe at this, but with a little more patience Record Keeper is perfectly playable without any use of in-app purchases. Mythril is provided for completing most dungeons, and anybody who wants to sit and play this game for 2-3 hours continuously - thus needing stamina top-ups - really should go out and buy a fully-fledged RPG instead.
Characters have natural RPG affinities based off the skills in their home game. Cloud, for instance, doesn't use any type of magic, with his magic slots dedicated to physical skills and sword art style abilities. Rydia is a middling Black Mage, but does get access to Summons - and so on. Players will want to throw together a balanced party of their favourites. As well as big named characters, generic versions of base FF classes such as White Mage, Black Mage and Thief can be recruited - but I personally ended up going with the more famous names.
Spells are created by fashioning orbs together, which drop from enemies in dungeons. Early on the game is generous, but more powerful spells will require you to grind for orbs - which, again, lends to the game's bite-sized-battle gameplay loop.
Characters have three equipment slots - Weapon, Armor and Accessory - and these again play into class tropes. Cloud'll want a big sword, while Wakka is most at home with thrown weapons. Weapons can be upgraded and combined to make them more powerful, meaning even weaker drops have something of a purpose. All of this costs gil, which again is gained through battling or alternatively through selling unwanted gear.
All this sounds quite grindy - and it is - but this isn't a fully-fledged story-based RPG. It's designed as a basic time-killer, and in that respect it's a storming success. Against all odds, grinding is subversively fun and engaging, and setting your sights on a new mighty spell or weapon upgrade in order to better tackle a difficult new dungeon is satisfying indeed.
Grinding is assisted, helpfully, by daily dungeons. Wednesdays net you a chance to grind for Gil, for instance, and if you set yourself to it you can easily walk away with enough gil to last you a week or more of other play.
As it stands now, you can get a short way into the stories of the 4 represented FFs before you hit a wall - but when you do, 'Elite' dungeons also unlock, offering the same story beats but at a far more challenging level. These have become my main target. All of this is fun - it's great seeing classic FF stuff recreated in lower (or higher) quality than it originally existed in, and the original music included holds up as well as ever.
All of this is most enjoyable for what it is - tempered expectations are key, and those going in expecting a fully-fledged RPG experience are sure to meet with disappointment - but this game isn't trying to be that.
Small niggles and disappointments drag the experience down - the in-app purchases are frankly far too expensive considering the random factor at play in drawing gear, and Mythril is just a little too scarce - even taken with the understanding that it is sparse to encourage in-app purchases - this actually might hinder earning, as I'd be more inclined to spend were everything a little cheaper as in some other titles including Terra Battle.
This blatant greed is especially strange when sat next to the stamina system - which feels surprisingly well-paced and friendly. Also perplexing is the decision to make the game require a constant internet connection - meaning play might be difficult for some commuters who experience spotty signal.
It's always difficult to review a free-to-play game - especially one that's going to be supported with continuous free content updates that could easily adjust the quality significantly. Balance adjustments could break this game's back or make it even better - but as it stands right now, I feel safe in being able to say that Record Keeper is pretty solid and well worth a look as a quick-fire time killer for FF and RPG fans. It's certainly no All the Bravest.
Versions tested: iOS