Spoiler Warning for all of Fantasian. You can read my write up on the first release here.
Taking a break in an RPG is usually a death sentence. Prolonged periods away from a systems heavy game means completely forgetting battle strategies and how to proceed with ongoing quest lines. It’s a testament to how good the game is that I readily jumped back into Fantasian when the 2.0 patch released on August 12, 4 months after I had completed the first 20 hours that were released at launch. Mistwalker was hard at work during that period building out what turned into an additional 40 hours of gameplay for me (I haven’t even played the end game dungeon yet). I was expecting the new content update to be a “chapter 2” for the game, released with a recap or something to catch me back up. That turned out to be wrong; the game unceremoniously picks up right where I left off like I had just put in the second disc in a PS1 Final Fantasy. This won’t affect new players at all as they’ll just continue on seamlessly but it was a big adjustment for me. The first five hours of my 2.0 playthrough was re-learning the systems, map and story (most of which I had to review outside of the game). The Apple Arcade staggered release strategy always was fishy to me in ways that only benefit their subscription model rather than the game itself. After all, how do you build on the hype of the initial release? It’s much harder to get people excited about a patch even if it does mean the game is finished. I find it frustrating because it seems to have helped bury what is a really great JRPG and one of my favorite games of the year.
Once I got my feet back under me, I was once again enamored with the game. 2.0 changes the structure up with a more open world quest system. Instead of going from one storyline mission to the next, you’ll receive a handful of quests to complete around the world map. You’ll recollect your party members, find new ones and help out random townspeople with tasks like literally herding cats. It’s very reminiscent of FFVI’s World of Ruin but with way more story and quests to pick up (this world isn’t bombed out like that was). Each party member also has a unique quest line that fleshes out their backstory. There are also new side quests that are placed throughout the map and run the gamut from fighting bosses to scavenger hunts across the cities (these were especially hard after a long time away from the game; it’s hard to decipher clues when you don’t know the map in detail). The World Map makes picking up and finding quests as easy as possible. You can fast travel to any zone you’ve been to before and each area will list if you have any quests to pick up. The map will also show where a quest is with an icon making questing a breeze. There’s not alot of organic discovery happening and feels on rails with all the icons and fast travel mechanics, but I enjoyed the easy checklist pace of picking them up. That doesn’t mean that these quests aren’t hard, the difficulty increases exponentially with this patch. There are still a few undiscovered areas that you’ll have to traverse and for those you get to pilot the luxury airship cruise liner! The Urza is absolutely a top JRPG airship and there are side quests to slowly fill out the ship with crew members and animals.
The quest design, while seemingly open in which you have the option to tackle them at any pace, has a more linear progression than I expected. Each quest comes with a minimum level recommendation and due to the difficult nature of the quests must absolutely be adhered to. Enemy levels are not dynamic like FF8 instead set at specific ranges based on the area or associated quest. If you don’t meet the minimum level, you may be without a necessary ability or the boss will almost immediately wipe your party. This meant I mostly completed each quest in level order except for one where I accidentally navigated the Urza into a void in the middle of the map. That triggered a quest that I was underleveled for and I couldn’t leave, which became something of a pain when I had to sit and slowly grind levels. I felt punished for breaking the path that the game set out for me. Otherwise quests are nicely doled out so that you’re adequately leveled to flow into the next quest line. These new quests can be absolutely brutal, most of them stacked with a final tough boss fight. Be prepared to spend lots of time taking multiple runs to beat a boss, regardless of whether it’s a story mission or a small side quest. Some bosses required me to spend multiple hours retrying battles until I was finally able to win. It felt great and required me to use my strategy brain in a way that a lot of other JRPGS don’t. It was really exciting to have to really push to beat these enemies after the relatively breezy time I had with the earlier quests.
The bosses require you to really engage with the games mechanics and understand how to use your party. I had to memorize boss timing, moves and weaknesses and even then I barely scraped by most of them. The fights themselves are varied, requiring you to change your strategy to adapt each time. The boss to retrieve Zinikir is on a hidden time limit as he’ll be slowly surrounded with debris the longer the fight goes on. The debris field becomes so thick that you can’t hit him and he does more damage for each additional piece. Other bosses like Yim will have you trying to clear mobs as fast as possible before they can absorb them and deal damage for each one left alive. The fights can all be taxing in a way that makes them really exciting. Each new one I came across was a challenge and it felt so good when I put all the pieces together to win. A great addition to 2.0 is the FFX swap mechanic, allowing you to swap in and out party members during battle. This is key as each character has a unique move set and element. Some fights required you to use elemental weaknesses to win like Geo Nova were weak to dark forcing me to use Valrika (dark magic user). Other bosses require exploiting weaknesses to specific character actions, like the Infernal Mechteria Blob who was weak to Cheryl’s attack. She is the only character with a vertical striking attack which is where she drops a magic knight down from the sky. Other characters’ attacks move on a horizontal line (sometimes can be curved or straight) so they only do minuscule damage against that boss. The different attack patterns were neat and utilized the Apple touchscreen well. Magic and certain character attacks can be curved meaning you can hit numerous characters in a curved line. Those always felt good to line up.
Even once you understand the strategy behind each boss fight, you’ll still have a tough time getting through them. These bosses hit hard and take a lot of damage so you won’t be wiping any very fast. I’m very thankful for the active Reddit community who has helped coach me and others through some of the more difficult ones. The only downside for certain bosses is that they sometimes require specific abilities to beat them. Characters unlock abilities through their talent tree and you earn more points to spend on it each time they level. There were a few times where I hadn’t specced a character to have a specific ability and therefore couldn’t proceed until I had. Ez for example has a story quest line with a boss that requires you to use his vacuum ability to collect groups of bombs. The bombs surround the boss and by using vacuum you’re able to avoid hitting them, which almost instantly kill your party, and allow you to attack the boss. It’s a fun fight with the ability but hitting the wall without it led to me finding an area to grind until I unlocked it. The unfortunate side effect of the quest level gating also meant I couldn’t go pick up a new questline to follow. I would’ve loved FF8’s dynamic leveling so I could bounce around between quests whenever I got stuck.
Perhaps the most exciting challenge are Fantasian’s first-person mini dungeons. There are a set of 6 around the world map that are each based around a different element. You’ll navigate around a maze collecting treasure and fighting enemies and eventually face a boss to complete it. They’re a great way to break up the normal quest structure and require you to build your party and load out around the dungeon specific element. Each dungeon also contains enemies that have you try to build an item within a time limit rather than battling it. It makes the dungeons perfectly tuned so by the time you face the boss you’ll have built items that help you resist their attacks. The bosses themselves are also incredibly varied. One has you facing a tough Minotaur where another has you facing a hard hitting spell caster. The best part of each dungeon is that they only take maybe an hour to complete (depending on how many runs a boss takes) and feel like distinct stand-alone RPG experiences. They’re my favorite part of the game and I loved the new challenges and boss variety that each one brought.
The dioramas continue to be absolutely gorgeous. The new locales are all beautiful to trek through, ranging from snowy mountains to hidden islands to dimension connecting pathways. I have a camera roll full of screenshots of all the different areas. The snowy environments sparkle in the sunlight and frozen waterfalls glisten as your characters cross bridges past them. There are old stone ruins covered in moss that evoke ancient South American temple architecture. Hopping between dimensions looks like you’re working your way across neural pathways. The final area is a grotesque cathedral, with stone hands and people lining the paths that look like they’re trying to escape hell. The scale is tuned perfectly as your small character slowly moves across the vast landscapes (also worth noting, you can have any party member be your world map avatar). Accompanying your movements are Uematsu’s beautiful arrangements. There’s a few new songs to soundtrack your continued journey and they are just as lush and whimsical as the other tracks. The tones for different dimensions match the tone well like the choral singing found in the God Realm and synth wave found in the Communication Network. Notably the new tracks have a lot more distortion and we get blaring metal guitars soundtracking later boss fights. “At Wrath’s End” is repeated across three boss battles and it hits every time:
The story is a serviceable JRPG plot, turns out you kill God! Or at least A God. The characters though are engaging and the character specific questlines make their presences more impactful. Fantasian is about found family, dealing with loss and how you grow in a way that mostly hits. Everyone in the party has had to deal with loss, usually a family member or close friend. Their stories are affecting and the best stories explore that grief. Zinikir is specifically hurt by the loss of his sister and his close friend’s inability to move on from the trauma (his animated story pages are beautiful too). Other characters are left more unexplored; I would have loved to understand what Valrika’s life was like before her world was destroyed so that her grief over being spared would’ve been more impactful. Fantasian falls into bad stock plots though and the majority of the trauma is related to dead women. Tan’s may be the most egregious as his story consists of him being saved from a violent path by a beautiful woman, who sacrifices her life to protect him. Leo, Kina, and Cheryl all have dead moms and I also mentioned Zinikir’s loss of his sister. The story’s all work in a silo but it was an unfortunate pattern across all of them. I enjoyed all the fantasy trappings though and jumping across multiple dimensions proved to be very fun. The metaphysical nature of the “gods” was also a fun wrinkle; more of the Marvel type of powerful but fallible aliens.
Fantasian is a fantastic RPG from start to finish. The gameplay is perfectly tuned with the right amount of challenge to test you and quality of life enhancements to make embarking on quests easy. I cannot believe I spent as much time as I did as the hours spent tinkering with bosses and making numbers go up seemed to just melt away. The Apple only release seems to have unfortunately stymied some of the buzz around this game. Hopefully this will get a wider release so that more people can play it in the future.