I should be playing and reviewing so many other things. I have dozens of games sitting there with maybe a few hours of time spent on them, but goddamn Fantasy Life keeps pulling me back in. Seriously, fuck this game.
I like three things in a game. I like to explore, I like to kill things, and I like to feel some sort of progression. It’s called an adventure. Look it up. I mean, I don’t really have to explain this to you, do I?
Some games do parts of these things well, or even all of them. But, even among the greats, certain things tend to be lacking. Bethesda knows their way around exploration and progression, as evidenced by Fallout 3 and The Elder Scrolls, but even these incredible games are somewhat lacking in quality combat. The Far Cry Franchise excels in exploration and combat, but the sense of progression could stand to maybe, I dunno… exist? I mean, apart from locking off whole combat mechanics, ala Far Cry 3, the series has very little sense of character growth. Borderlands, the game I should be writing about right now, has great gunplay, as well as character progression that puts most other games to shame (Pirate ship mode, guys. Am I right?), but the exploration is hurting so bad it might as well be dead.
These games are all great, no doubt about it, but they all suffer from a lack of one of these three qualities. Fantasy Life has, arguably, too much of all three. Seriously. There is way too much to do, and that is coming from someone who likes having a lot to do in a game. Give me something I can easily sink 60-70 hours into, and I will give you my money without hesitation. I am currently 40+ hours into this game, and I have barely even scratched the surface. (Update 3/19/15: My fiancée stole this game from me and held it hostage in her 3DS for a long-ass time. She hit 100 hours this week and I hit 85 after buying a second copy so I could play it again. Still haven’t done everything. And, bonus, since she likes it, your less-nerdy friends might like it, too. Nerd.)
Fantasy Life is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. You live someone’s life in a fantasy game. It’s similar to games like Animal Crossing, Harvest Moon, and Rune Factory, in that the gameplay consists of waking up in the morning, doing your job, maybe talking to a couple of the other townsfolk, completing a few menial tasks, then going to sleep.
I have never been able to get into this style of game. I find Animal Crossing to be nauseatingly adorable while it demands that I only play an hour a day. Harvest moon was the opposite, and didn’t seem to want to charm me at all. And Rune Factory… It feels like Animal Crossing with simply the ability to go to bed and progress time added in. All of these games claim to be life simulators, but limit me to one, maybe two different types of lives to live, and they dictate what pace I must use. I really don’t like being told to play an RPG at a certain pace. It’s my adventure. Don’t tell me that I have to go to bed.
During all of my time with Fantasy Life so far, I think my character might have gone to bed roughly four times, and that was just because he was near his bed and low on health. There is a weird kind of bliss in keeping your character awake for weeks at a time in a life simulator. It’s absolutely cathartic. Makes me feel, like, a million times better about my own life. I might have a hard time getting comfortable enough to sleep for more than a few hours at a time, but at least I’m not so addicted to fishing and killing bears that I go a month or two between naps. Makes me feel like frickin’ Rip Van Winkle.
I voiced another complaint about the life simulator games earlier: lack of choices in the type of life I lead. Harvest Moon allows me to be a farmer, Rune Factory allows me to be a farmer and a warrior, and Animal Crossing allows me to be a… um, a… fucking… silent conversation partner/slave worker? I honestly don’t get Animal Crossing at all. I find its popularity mystifying. Fantasy Life, though, has a list of “Lives” I can live. I can choose any of those lives at, essentially, any time. It’s locked out while actively pursuing a main story quest, and possibly for a little while at the beginning? By the time I was ready to start learning about the other lives, I was able to change, so if it is locked off at all at the beginning of the game, it isn’t for long, and it’s probably just because you’re experiencing the main story.
I started as a Paladin. Swords and shields and piety, or so I thought. Instead, I got swords and shields and being a town guard. This is not as boring as it sounds, really. The dialogue is both charming and witty, and the characters are mostly distinct enough to be somewhat memorable. Once I started branching out into other lives, I encountered other characters who were eerily similar to characters I’d met before, but the plot is that perfect combination of well-written and forgettable that it has the right to get a little samey. If you take the time to actually read the dialogue, you’ll enjoy it every time, but it’s also not really needed after you have the base mechanics down. In fact, you have the option to skip the introductory quest for each life after your first, and there is generally special dialogue written that lets you know that there are gonna be people in town who you should have met during the quest you skipped, and you shouldn’t be surprised if they inexplicably seem to know you. It’s a nice touch, and it helps alleviate the strange sense of guilt I feel every time I skip some of the game’s carefully crafted script.
But, who gives a shit about the story? In this sort of game, i.e. one that doesn’t entirely rely on its story to carry it, like Bioshock Infinite or Telltale’s Walking Dead Series, we have to judge it mostly by the meat of the game, which is the gameplay. In the spirit of the introduction on this review, let’s break it down by the three qualities I mentioned.
First, we have exploration. Sweet, baby Jesus, do we ever have exploration. Think Skyrim, but segmented like a Zelda game. Portions of the world are locked off by the main story, and do not open up until specific tasks are complete, and fast travel can take even longer to unlock for a given area, but, for the first time in my life, I almost welcome this. The game’s map is massive, and even the small portion I currently have access to (maybe a third of it, tops?) is slightly overwhelming. To make matters worse, or better, depending on how you view it, each area is positively flooded with things to do. You want monsters to kill? Take ten goddamn steps in any direction outside of town. You want a quest to complete? Go back to town and, again, take ten steps in any direction. You want to gather crafting materials? Bitch, you have no idea what you’re getting into, there. Every single area, regardless of whether or not combat is possible, is riddled with resources to gather. In addition, smaller areas branch off from each map, lending it a size that can induce panic attacks in those not prepared for this game’s size. I seriously cannot emphasize this enough: this scope of this game is bonkers, especially for a handheld title.
On that note, let’s take a step back before we look at combat and progression. This is a fucking handheld game, and I am comparing it to an Elder Scrolls game, at least in terms of size. That sinking in for you? The Nintendo 3DS has a game that rivals a hardcore, open-world RPG for consoles and PCs. For those of us paying attention, though, this is what we have come to expect from Level-5. They brought us the Guild Collections, which I recommend googling, since I couldn’t possibly do the size of these collections justice in a single paragraph or two, and that’s all the space I want to dedicate to fellating these guys with my words. I talk a lot about “pedigree” when it comes to studios, and these guys are so full of pedigree you could show them off at the fucking Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. No shit. Look them up. You probably know several of their games if you play RPGs at all, and love them if you’ve played them. They came onto the scene in the year 2000, when they released Dark Cloud, one of the unsung heroes of the PS2. Dark Cloud 2 followed in 2002, then they hit the big-time, when Square Enix approached them to develop Dragon Quest VIII, which is universally acknowledged as one of the greatest games of all time, and quite possibly the single best old-school, turn-based RPG ever created. Even IGN ranks it at #39 on its list of the best games of all time, which is impressive when you assume that the 38 games above it probably bought their way into that list, to some extent, or, at the very least, were made by much larger studios. At the time that Dragon Quest was started, Level-5 was still considered to be a small startup company.
With the success of Dragon Quest 8, Level-5 was able to expand dramatically, hitting 150 employees by 2010. They released dozens of high-quality games, including Jeanne d’Arc, Ni no Kuni, Inazuma Eleven, Dragon Quest IX, and the Professor Layton games. If you move in gamer circles (and I assume you do, since you’re reading my bullshit), you know these games. Even if you haven’t played them, you’ve heard talk. No one has bad things to say about these games. In recent years, they have focused more on smaller (file-size-wise) games for handheld systems, but every single one has made their first game, Dark Cloud, which was universally praised, look like the work of amateurs.
I love this studio, and I didn’t even know it. They have something like 3% of the Japanese game market on lock, which doesn’t sound like much, but, considering that they have less than a tenth of the staff of giants like Square Enix, that figure starts to become impressive. With a small market share like that, they don’t come up often in every day conversation, though, and that’s a fucking shame. Go download Bugs vs. Tanks for like $3.00 right now, and you’ll see what I mean. Nothing else at that price point approaches the level of quality these guys can pull off.
Anyway, Fantasy Life. It’s a game. We’ve already talked exploration, so let’s talk combat.
It kills me to say it, but that’s always the way with these games, right? Now, that is not to say that there isn’t a lot of combat, because it’s everywhere. I would even go so far as to say that much of the resource-gathering is combat, as well. When you approach a tree or an ore deposit that you would like to make yours, you press the A button, then swing at the tree or rock from different angles, trying to find the sweet spot that will let you deplete its health as quickly as possible, so you don’t get too tired to keep going. Really, the combat against inanimate objects might even be more compelling than combat against actual enemies. You have exactly one button for attacking that does a lunging hit when you move toward an enemy while swinging, and a multi-hit combo while standing still. If you have a shield, you can block, but it usually only shaves off a few points of damage, so just walking out of the way of attacks is preferred. If you are in a combat life that matches the weapon you are using, you get a special gauge that slowly fills and allows you to do an extremely overpowered attack. You cannot do a special move at all in combat if you’re in a non-combat life. It’s not like, the best thing ever, but it helps, when you have exactly two different attacks, otherwise.
This causes most of the hard decisions in the game. Playing as a Paladin is great, because it gives you a special move that does assloads of damage. But, if you’re in a combat life, it means you will have a harder time gathering resources. I spent most of my time playing as a miner, a woodcutter, or a fisherman, so that I could at least gather one type of resource with relative ease, because, again, trees and rocks and fish are the toughest enemies in the game. Many of these trees and rocks will be entirely skipped by you when first encountered, because you simply can’t damage them no matter how hard you try. There are a few trees I found that I still cannot damage 40 hours in, and I found them in hour ten.
Last, we have character progression. And holy shit, do we have a lot of it. There are experience points that increase your character level, giving you extra points to put toward stats of your choice upon leveling. There are stars, which can generally be earned in any Life, that increase the level of that particular life, from Fledgling, to Novice, all the way up to Master and, supposedly, Legend. It could go past Legend, I don’t know. I try not to look up stuff about games I haven’t finished. I’m right in the middle on all of my Lives, either an Adept or an Expert, and I have completed an awful lot of challenges. I can’t even wrap my brain around the amount of sushi I would need to make to become a Cooking Legend. There’s Bliss, which is earned by performing tasks to make you feel more connected to the world and its inhabitants, which can be spent to unlock larger inventory, pets, horses, and even better inventory for shops. The three crafting-type lives (Alchemist, Woodworker, and Smith) allow you to craft better gear for your character, which also adds to your sense of progression. One could feasibly do nothing but craft items to gain levels, and the crafting mini-game is just barely tolerable enough to make that a possibility. So, not only is there a fuckload of character progression, there are also nearly limitless options for accomplishing this. Sure, you could run around and murder things until you have enough money to buy gold armor, or you could buy the raw gold and craft your own, which could land you a higher-quality set of armor. Or, even better, you could mine your own gold ore, smelt it, and craft for the chance at better gear, gaining experience and stars every step of the way.
This game is remarkable, all things considered. The combat is bland, but is also mostly avoidable, and it is varied enough to make it at least more interesting than the combat in an Elder Scrolls game, if you decide to include fighting lives in your run through the game. I didn’t mention it above, but the graphics and music are also extremely pleasant. The music was all done by Nobuo Uematsu of Final Fantasy soundtrack fame. Here’s a little taste, because, let’s face it, I could never describe a graphical style or sound well enough for you to understand it as well as this (It’s the trailer, so it starts off with a bit of cutscene, but gameplay starts right around the 25-second mark and continues for about a minute, and all of the music is from the game.):
All-around, I can recommend this game to anyone who enjoys life-simulators or lengthy RPGs. If you require gore and intense violence, you’ll probably be bored by this friendly little title, but in the current market that is flooded with realism I, personally, welcome any title that remembers that it is, in fact, a video game and not a real-life simulator.
Score time. Damn it. Either an 8.5 or a 9, depending on personal taste. The bland combat is all I can really fault it for, and I lean toward 9 simply because, if you don’t want to engage in the boring combat, you don’t have to. This is, however, the best life simulator I’ve ever played, so keep that in mind if you’re thinking about picking up this wonderful little title. That’s funny. “Little” is about as far from true as possible. We’ll call it a massive little game, at the very least. For a handheld title, it’s practically The Elder Scrolls VI.