The launch of Fantasian really snuck up on us. After getting announced back in 2019, it flew under the radar until right around New Year’s when developer Mistwalker confirmed the JRPG would release this year. Then, out of the blue, it dropped last week alongside a slew of new titles for Apple Arcade.
For many people, this was the first time they read the words “Apple Arcade” in months as the subscription service has more or less dropped out of the spotlight since its high-profile launch. I don’t know if that will change with these new titles, but if there is any game that will get people paying attention to it again, it’s probably this stunning RPG from the father of Final Fantasy.
Released: April 2, 2021
MSRP: Part of Apple Arcade ($4.99 a month)
If you’ve been paying attention to Fantasian at all over the past few weeks, it’s probably because Mistwalker has been dropping absolutely gorgeous screenshots of the title in the lead-up to its launch. Dubbed a “Diorama Adventure RPG,” it uses more than 150 handmade dioramas to create most of its world. And let me just get this out of the way right now: this game is stunning. These sets and locations are brilliantly designed with Mistwalker employing several model shops to bring the game to life. There is so much detail in each space, and it’s a bit mind-boggling to see how intricate of a world its artists could create on such a small scale.
Not everything in Fantasian has been handcrafted and scanned into the game. The overworld map is a traditional 3D map, and all of the characters, NPCs, and monsters that you encounter are 3D models. And while they don’t exactly look like they belong in this diorama world, they don’t really look out of place either. The visual disconnect between the locations and the character designs wilted away quickly as I opened up more of this enchanting place and engaged in its magnificent combat system.
While it is a fairly standard turn-based RPG, Fantasian’s combat has two elements that craft an identity of its own. When you engage with monsters, they’re scattered on the diorama battlefield rather than standing in straight lines or groups. This is because every character in the game has attacks that can target either single or multiple enemies depending on where they are positioned. So a basic melee attack will hit just one creature, but if you use a skill or magic, you can target several opponents.
Some abilities will ensnare foes if they’re within the attack radius, while others allow you to strike any creature you can line your shot up with. Magic attacks can be curved, so if you have some big oaf right up front with a shield down stopping any shot you send its way, you can bend your spell around them like James McAvoy in Wanted. It’s a pretty genius and engaging system; one starts to shine when you unlock the ability to send monsters to the Dimengeon.
Unlike a lot of its modern contemporaries that put enemies directly on the map, Fantasian uses random encounters. But rather than bogging players down with the pitfalls traditionally associated with such encounters, the game gives you the ability to “collect” all of the monsters you randomly encounter on their journey and fight them in what is known as a “Dimengeon Battle”. When you first obtain this ability, you can collect up to 30 monsters before you’re forced to fight them. Dimengeon Battles start with a large group of enemies depending on how many you’ve collected, with each defeated foe getting replaced by more enemies until you’ve exhausted all the monsters you collected. Not only does this making grinding for experience a snap, as you usually see massive amounts of XP when these battles are over, but as I said above, they are a great showcase for the battle system. When you have large groups of enemies standing against you, it’s easy to line up attacks that strike multiple foes.
Dimengeon Battles also dot the battlefield with power-ups, like increase attack strength or steal a turn from the enemy, that can make these battles more methodical. Not every encounter can be collected, though. Boss battles and some special enemies have to be battled right away, and there are some points in the story where the ability will not be available. But it’s there for most of your adventure, and honestly, when I first heard about the mechanic, I was worried it would ruin the flow of the game, that I would just rush through environments and battle all the monsters at once at the end. But it doesn’t really work that way. In fact, it works far better than I ever thought it would, and it’s going to be tough to go back to JRPGs that do old-fashioned random encounters.
For as forward-thinking as its battle systems and art direction are, the one aspect of Fantasian that does feel dated is its story. This is a pretty run-of-the-mill tale of a band of adventurers saving the world. You play as Leo, a thief who begins his journey in the machine realm on the run from robots trying to kill him. Upon escaping back to the human realm, he joins up with the mysterious Kina and the two set off to unravel the mysteries of mechteria, a mechanical invasive species that is slowly destroying their world.
There are several tropes of the genre at play here, including a luxurious ship you travel on, a coliseum you’re forced to do battle in, stoic heroes who don’t want your help but appreciate you anyway, and a protagonist suffering an attack of explosive amnesia. I could make do with all of that if the cast were better written. Leo isn’t exactly engaging hero material, and overall, the script suffers from an inability to give its characters distinct voices that match their diversified backgrounds. I’d never thought I’d long for Dragon Quest’s terrible faux-Scottish dialog text, but here we are.
Despite the tropes and mostly unimaginative dialog, Fantasian is buoyed by strong world-building, interesting backstories, and a genuine sense that your adventure is building up to something incredible. It took me about 18 hours to complete the story, and part one ends with a few developments that I really want to see play out when part two releases later this year. I’m also looking forward to the promised open-ended second half as Fantasian’s first half is a mostly linear ordeal.
For the record, I split my time with Fantasian between my iPad and my MacBook Air and used all three control options available. While the visuals were a bit better on my MacBook with less jaggy character models, I actually didn’t care for using a standard controller with the game. The movement between the different areas of each diorama is a bit off, enough that touch controls/mouse controls were ultimately the superior option.
No matter what device I was playing on, I made sure to have my headphones plugged in as Nobuo Uematsu’s score is quite good, blending elements from his time with the Final Fantasy series with music that sounds as though it was inspired by John Williams. Which makes sense, given that mechteria straight up sounds like a Tie Fighter.
I’ve played a few of the RPGs available on Apple Arcade and I don’t think a single one has come close to matching Fantasian‘s vision and execution. This is a wonderful game with an outstanding battle system that is brought to life with what could be the best art direction of 2021.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game through an Apple Arcade subscription purchased by the reviewer.]