by Alex Krefetz
Published by Nintendo
Developed by Level 5
Release: October 24th, 2014
Over the history of game development, we’ve seen a number of games created in different parts of the world. Diversity in design seems to come from a diverse group of people, and we’ve seen games from different geographic areas tackle the same genre in different ways. One of the most divergent genres is the roll-playing game, regulated into eastern and western categories. Japanese RPGs tend to try to craft a cohesive story and game experience at the lack of choice, where western RPGs emphasize total freedom but sometimes lead to unbalanced and less refined gameplay. Fantasy Life for the 3ds reconciles these two different philosophies into not only one of the best RPGs of the year but one of the best games in recent memory.
Fantasy Life comes from developer Level 5, best known for the puzzle series Professor Layton and numerous RPGs such as Dragon Quest and Ni No Kuni. Having cut their teeth on JRPGs in the past, Fantasy Life seems to benefit from the pedigree of a developer who understands what makes RPGs enjoyable. Fantasy Life is a ruthlessly efficient game, trimming away the fat that gums up many RPGs to better explore the world and systems of the game. To start, your character picks one of twelve “Lives”, each focusing on a specific task. Most gamers are likely familiar with class systems in RPGs, but never before have I played a game with such diversity as Fantasy Life allows. While classes like Paladin and Hunter fill familiar combat rolls, jobs like Tailor, Miner and Blacksmith open up non-combat activities. The jobs can loosely classified into combat, crafting and resource collection. Each class has multiple levels of mastery that open up new skills.
There’s a story in Fantasy Life, though it may be the game’s weakest link. A played-out story of mysterious falling rocks and the one hero destined to save the day won’t win any awards, but it serves as little more than window dressing for exploring the surprisingly large world. At its worst, the game is overly wordy and many players will mash the A button to get past long sections of talking. At its best, truly clever writing flesh out minor NPC’s and make for a fun world to explore.
As with many RPGS, questing makes up the bulk of your time. The story can be advanced by working with your talking butterfly companion on specific story missions that both expand the explorable area and reward the player with “Bliss”, redeemable for rewards such as larger bags, the ability to ride horses, and an animal companion. Aside from story quests, each class has a number of different tasks specific to themselves in order to level up that specific Life. Anglers need to catch larger fish, Carpenters need to produce more furniture, and Mercenaries must defeat powerful monsters to advance in their Life. Finally, general quests reward the player with items, money and experience no matter which Life completes the task.
The interplay between classes is what really makes Fantasy Life stand out. A Paladin can go out into the world and slay monsters, but will soon need new equipment. The game allows players to purchase much of what they would need, but at a high price. It makes much more sense to take on the role of a Blacksmith to build weapons for your avatar, as well as mastering the crafting game to make high quality weapons with additional power. However, a blacksmith needs top quality materials to make strong weapons, which is when the player may move on to the Miner who is best equipped to delve into caves and get the best resources. This cycle ensures players always have the impetus to try out a new class. The game also allows skills to carry over from class to class, meaning your Hunter can craft a new bow as long as the Carpenter already learned how to.
Many modern RPGs emphasize multiplayer, and Fantasy Life is well suited for including others in your adventure. Connecting locally or over wifi, adventurers can explore and complete quests together. Players with less experience are free to join the highest leveled player wherever on the map that they have progressed to, which can help build experience for those still in the beginning stages. However, the Life system also gives good reason for higher level players to explore some of the first areas again. Those who may not have defeated that one monster or caught a fish in the one area will have no problem joining players
Fantasy Life’s systems work in a way to never really waste the player’s time by always providing something new to do. Tasks that forward another Life’s quest will still count when playing a different one, and sharing skills means you won’t ever need to pause one task to switch to a new Life to complete one challenge. With this, there’s an exciting freedom to go see what the world has to offer as well as revisit areas in a new life. The first grassy field your character encounters will have different challenges for different Lives, encouraging you to explore and get the most out of distinct areas. The game is much larger than I expected for a handheld RPG, and accompanied with the variety of goals in each area a player can spend hours inside Fantasy Life. It took me close to 15 hours to make it to the second player hub because I wanted to try out all the classes, and the game is well paced to allow for this style or someone who wants to simply play through and see the end of the story. Mounts and fast travel allow for even quicker movement to needed locations, and you’ll never feel like you’re just running through meaningless areas to get to a goal.
On the presentation side, Fantasy Life retains much of the style from previous Level 5 games. Final Fantasy legends Yoshitaka Amano and Nobuo Uematsui provide input on character design and music respectively. Those familiar with Amano’s early Final Fantasy work may not see the same style in play here but his sensibilities combined with Level 5’s interesting designs make for a vibrant world. Sakaguchi provides a soundtrack that works well, and while not every song is as memorable as the One Winged Angel or To Zanarkand, but a few of the tracks did stick with me. The 3DS’s 3D capabilities add some depth to the visuals, but isn’t particularly groundbreaking. Overall the game’s presentation is solid and one of the better looking titles on the 3DS.
I started the review by talking about JRPGs, WRPGs, and the differences between them. By combining numerous well-designed systems and an expansive world open to a variety of play styles, Fantasy Life creates a compelling experience by taking what was once thought of as conflicting ideology and forming a style all its own. Fans of action games, RPGs, and life simulators will all find something to enjoy here; Level 5 has created a vast world that players can sink countless hours into, living whatever Life they may choose.