When Apple revealed its plan for Apple Arcade in March of 2019, they announced exclusive games done by industry veterans. FANTASIAN is one of them. And now, 18 months after the launch of the service, the game is finally here. Was it worth the wait?
FANTASIAN in a Nutshell
The game is the creation of Mistwalker, a studio founded by Hironobu Sakaguchi, best known as a key person of the Final Fantasy franchise (until Final Fantasy X). And this lineage is obvious, almost too much, when you start playing FANTASIAN. Gameplay-wise, the game really feels like a cross-over between Final Fantasy VII (the 1997 original, not the remake) and Final Fantasy X, but in a modern package.
From FFVII, it borrows the aesthetics, with that specific touch typical from the PlayStation 1 era, where the pre-rendered backgrounds were much more detailed than the real-time 3D characters above them. And I could argue that Fantasian took from its story too, as both game start in a futuristic factory with a character who struggles to remember who he is exactly. The world map is also very reminiscent of the PlayStation 1 era.
The heritage from FFX is more subtle. However, the “turn timelines” from both games feel strangely similar to me.
The comparison stops there. If you have ever played a Final Fantasy game you should be at home. But keep in mind that this game has been made to address primarily the casual or the average gamer. Do not expect a very challenging experience, even if some fights (notably the boss fights) seem a little unbalanced.
As a disclaimer, I’m only 7 hours in when writing this review, so I have not seen the whole story yet. However, I have to say it is not very engaging so far, and even a little (lot?) dated. You start the game as Leo with no recollection of your past. The first stage, that serves as a tutorial, takes place in a futuristic factory with two robot sidekicks that help you fight your opponents and gather the first hints on your actual condition. After a few encounters, you finally escape and land in a village called En. There, you will meet your first party member in the person of Kina, also with a mysterious past, and your journey begins.
Oldie Gameplay but Goldie Gameplay
For those unfamiliar with the Final Fantasy franchise or main stream japanese role-playing games (J-RPG), everything may seem fresh. But in fact, for long time fans, most aspects of the gameplay are pretty dated here.
The core game loop consists of navigating through locations, discussing with non-playable characters to eventually progress through the various quests, looting treasure chests and finding hidden items.
In unsafe areas, you will also randomly encounter enemies and enter fight mode. Fights unwind on a turn-based basis, each character, friend or foe, attacking one after each other. They can use magic or be more of practical warriors. By defeating your opponents, your characters will earn experience, pass levels and gain new skills.
Nothing uncommon here. However, it is probably where the game improves the most upon its ancestors. First, you have the fight controls. Each attacking skill might be used to target one or several targets, depending on the position of your opponents. Some skills, mostly magic ones, may have a curved trajectory. That gives a refreshing layer of strategy to the fights, even if the ergonomics have been intentionally targeted at touch devices, making the game a little tedious to handle with a game pad.
And, of course, there is the Dimengeon, a brand new feature that helps alleviating the frustration we have known for a long time with Final Fantasy classic random encounters. Basically, except for never-seen-before or special enemies, the Dimengeon captures foes up until you decide to fight them all at once or you reach the maximum capacity of the Dimengeon (30 enemies at start). It is a welcome addition to the game, also bringing another strategic dimension to the fights.
Dioramas, Dioramas Everywhere
Unfortunately, the game does not stand out of the pack thanks to its originality in the gameplay or story department. Its uniqueness lies in the visuals, or at least in the method to produce those visuals.
As shown in the video in introduction of this review, the creators built by hand about 150 real-life small-scale dioramas, one for each location of the game. Those dioramas were then shot from different angles and used as backgrounds for the game (like the pre-rendered backgrounds of FFVII). For sure, that gave FANTASIAN a very unique look and, for the most part, a very good look.
However, this method has a lot of drawbacks. The first one being that the scale difference between the dioramas and the virtual characters (and other elements) present on screen is huge. It may not be a problem on a phone screen, but it really stands out when playing on an iMac 27" or on a huge screen in your living room thanks to an Apple TV.
Real-life Lenses vs Virtual Cameras
As intriguing as the use of dioramas may have been during the marketing campaign before the launch of the game, once hands on with the final product it seems like a strong throwback and the result seems less qualitative than a 1997 game.
There are a lot of physical aspects of real-life camera lenses that should have been taken into account but have been avoided probably due to budget or performance constraints. The irony being that using 3D models would probably have allowed going around all of those constraints.
Depth of Field
When shooting photographs of small-scale models, you generally ends up with a strong depth of field effects, resulting in blurry foregrounds and backgrounds. The main problem here is that the virtual elements are not treated the same way. In game, it generally produces characters that are out of sync with the focus.
Real-time depth of field effects can be pretty expensive for the hardware, especially on phones, but having rendered the game backgrounds in 3D (just like FFVII in its time) would have eliminated the problem completely.
Camera mapping or camera projection is a technique consisting on the projection of a picture onto a 3D model from the point of view of the camera. Generally, the 3D model is an approximation of the real world scenery and the virtual camera used for the projection is placed at the same relative place as the one used to take the photograph. The video above gives a good example of the quality of animations that can result from that trick.
FANTASIAN uses the exact same technique to project the captured dioramas over the proxy 3D models of the different locations. Mistwalker basically remodeled the entire diorama world as a approximation and projected the photographs onto it from the different point of views needed for gameplay, as navigating into the map requires several shots and not a single one as the example above.
Then they made a weird choice. Instead of switching instantly from one point of view to the next, they tried to implement transitions. During those transitions, the camera will move from a location to another and the projected shots will be progressively blended between them. That gives a very distinct look to the camera movements, but leaves quite often some very disturbing artifacts, as different shots from different points of view are not always “compatible”.
Another issue you get from that camera mapping implementation comes from the proxy models. Proxies are approximations. They are not perfect recreation of the “real” world that is projected onto them. While it works pretty well on simple objects (like a wall), it falls short when you have to deal with very fine details. That gives some very ugly results.
FANTASIAN is clearly not a big budget game. Don’t expect huge cinematics during gameplay nor great acting and voice over. The game does indeed have a soundtrack composed par Nobuo Uematsu himself, but that’s it. Most of the important story beats are told thanks to some kind of hand-drawn slide shows with text overlays.
That’s fine. It is hurting the game pacing a little but, in the end, they serve their purpose. However, in some instances, the people at Mistwalker decided they wanted some kind of cutscenes directly into the game world. And they sometimes tried to put some different camera angles or zoom levels while using the same diorama shots than the gameplay. While it generally works, some instances break the illusion completely, with excessively blurry or pixelated backgrounds and almost pixel perfect character floating above them.
FANTASIAN is not a bad game in itself. It has some very clever gameplay features, like the Dimengeon, which makes the classic random encounter approach a little more digestible.
However, you also have to take it for what it is: a somewhat classic J-RPG with a bland story line and debatable visual choices. In theory, the dioramas seemed to be a great promise. In practice, they did not deliver and they seem more like an artistic stunt than a useful choice. In many instances, the magic fades away pretty quickly.
But, FANTASIAN remains definitely an important game of the Apple Arcade lineup. One that does not look like a free-to-play game retrofitted in a premium package. One that does make the monthly subscription worth it, like The Pathless or The Last Campfire. One that will address actual gamers.