How Final Fantasy’s creator just reinvented JRPG battles

Despite recent high profile successes like Dragon Quest XI and Octopath Traveler, there’s still a prevalent orthodoxy that turn-based JRPGs can’t compete in the landscape of blockbuster games. Instead, the genre is increasingly relegated to gacha and re-releases with the occasional mid-budget effort from Square Enix (or VERY occasional Persona or Dragon Quest). But as sales continue to reveal that love for fantastical menu adventures never went away, it’s imperative that developers use this opportunity to take bold steps, progressing a genre that has largely spun its wheels for two decades. This is exactly what Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi and his legendary composer compatriot Nobuo Uematsu sought to accomplish when teaming up for what may be their last hurrah: Fantasian.

Fantasian reads as a throwback to PlayStation-era JRPGs, the likes of which elevated Sakaguchi’s Final Fantasy saga to cloud-high commercial heights. Expensively hand-crafted dioramas stand in for ye olde pre-rendered backgrounds, the camera nostalgically shifting to reveal new angles at every turn. The story is essentially an amalgamation of Sakaguchi’s greatest hits which is inherently likable, even if all its punches don’t land (he cited Final Fantasy VI as an inspiration and it’s not subtle). Uematsu fans are also in for his best body of work in some time with themes ranging his spectrum of wacky to proggy to delicate. Yet it’s Fantasian’s evolution of turn-based battle systems that will stick with you after (Part 1’s) credits roll.

Before tackling Fantasian’s iterations on battling, let’s review how its contemporaries have swung. Octopath Traveler leaned on the foundation of Bravely Default’s unique action delay system, though recently Bravely Default 2 opted to expand its scope through ardent traditionalism. Meanwhile, Dragon Quest XI is entirely seeped in the tried-and-true systems it’s spent over 35 years polishing (though this is the franchise’s appeal). In similar order, Persona 5’s battle systems are a product of countless Shin Megami Tensei refinements. Though it doesn’t quite count given its greater lean into action, Final Fantasy VII Remake’s take on Active Time Battle is the most inventive implementation of a turn-based system I’ve experienced in recent times, allowing fluid movement between fast-paced sword-swinging and issuing commands via menu.

Most of the games listed above went on to sell millions of copies, proving an audience hunger for menus exists (or at least that they don’t deflect wallets). However, JRPG-deriding CEOs still hold their aforementioned line on giving preference to action games as they sell more millions, which all things being fair is empirically true. This tasks traditionalistic JRPGs with evolving along a careful line that retains the integrity of what fans love while integrating elements of tactile immediacy that hook newcomers. Additionally, long-standing, well-documented issues with the JRPG formula need to be addressed in order to build a foundation for future progress. Few minds are better suited for this task than Hironobu Sakaguchi. Having been formatively involved with the inception and heights and dips of the genre, he’s acutely aware not only of what makes JRPGs click but also those perpetually unaddressed shortcomings that draw fans’ ire. He and his studio Mistwalker reconcile exactly this with Fantasian’s battle systems, and the ingenuity starts before you even press ‘fight’.

The moment of Fantasian most likely to blow weathered JRPG player minds is when it introduces the Dimengeon. This optional device (a literal object in the game, which will shortly be important) stores up to 30 monsters that would otherwise pause your progression for a random encounter. An all-in-one battle against the accumulated mob can be opted into up until the quota is maxed, forcing the fight. You’re otherwise left free to explore without the constant nag of being interruptingly jerked into combat. Modern ports of older Final Fantasy games have a seemingly similar feature where random battles can be turned off altogether, but the result is a lack of resistance from the game that makes the world feel empty and proceedings pointless. Recognizing how dated encounter design necessitated these ports to include such a comprimising option, Fantasian takes that cheating and makes it fun. Because it wasn’t that people didn’t enjoy battling but rather battling became undesirable by association with grating random interruption. Thus, the Dimengeon not only removes the unfun but makes the fun of battling even funner. The large scale fights add extra layers of satisfaction through more complex puzzle patterns (I’ll return to this later), power-ups that give your party a satisfying edge over the congregation, and in turn a strengthened power fantasy. Plus a cherry on top: the instinctually euphoria of watching party members’ experience bars skyrocket rather than inch after victory. Altogether, the Dimengeon empowers the player by enhancing all aspects of gameplay through giving them control of what parts to engage with and when, without declawing the game world of its dangers.

But power is not to be taken for granted in Fantasian either. Feeling powerful when in possession of the Dimengeon becomes a means through which narrative designers can manipulate player emotions. When the tool is taken away during a few story beats, a pointed tension builds as memories of dungeon slogging stir. The quest to retrieve your stolen luxury becomes paramount, ergo frustration a propellant, ergo engaging. Importantly, sections without the Dimengeon are short and scant enough that they feel more like interesting moment-to-moment shifts rather than a laborious return to the familiar grind. Through this intersection of mechanics and storytelling, the Dimengeon system proves how truly game-changing it is.

An argument could be made that while Fantasian “solves” random encounters, that’s largely irrelevant in an era where JRPGs usually place enemies on the map. Perhaps biased, I’m largely in favor of this practice given that Chrono Trigger is my all-time favorite game and map enemies were one of its elements that set it apart from its contemporaries when I first played it two decades ago. However, in most instances I can’t help but see the practice as indicative of band-aiding the encounter problem. For example, Dragon Quest XIII’s 3DS port placed enemies on the overworld instead of the original’s random encounters. It’s a fine solution but not a creative one. Most JRPGs with this design are homogeneous in their implementation of variations on sneaking behind enemies to get the jump. Fantasian is comparatively impressive because it takes a poorly aged mechanic and morphs it into a bespoke system that permeates beyond its own confines, as we’ve discussed. It gives Fantasian a uniqueness that other JRPGs would be better for striving after, even if the safe option is acceptable.

While the Dimengeon addresses grievances of dedicated genre fans, Fantasian’s core battle system focuses on making the turn-based formula more tactile. This starts with the menu interface. Instead of being tasked with navigating a big block of nested options during each character’s turn, you’re instead greeted with two bubbles. The first is the character’s standard attack, with the second and most critical being a hotkey for the character’s last used skill or item. Aside from the fleeting sections where countering elemental weaknesses is advantageous or during skill-testing boss encounters, this hotkey will rarely need changing. Most enemies can be dispatched with a combination of a character’s standard attack and whatever skill of theirs slices through multiple bodies at once. This isn’t to say there’s a lack of depth; rather, it reveals how in most JRPGs the only battles that extend long enough to require a myriad of buffs, debuffs, and so on are those against bosses. Having this hotkey means that most of the time you won’t be repetitiously searching for the same menu item every battle. In fact, you won’t be looking at menus much at all, somewhat dispelling the feeling of JRPGs as “menu games” (even though that nature is just well hidden). The brisk nature of battles facilitated by this hotkey gives them a tinge of “action” edge.

This edge is even more pronounced when targeting enemies. Much like Peggle’s super guide, you position a line over enemies and either the first or all will be damaged depending on the attack’s attributes. Some characters can arc this line around the edges of the arena, opening up possibilities for sniping enemies otherwise shielded by frontline guards. Lining up trick shots to mark as many targets as possible is as crucial if not more so than what attack you’re using, resulting in combat that feels more like a puzzle. Enemy patterns are often designed with an optimal path for flawless victory, and other times the puzzle is organic through the choices you make with an unconventional toolbox. This is especially true in Dimengeon battles where the perfect trick shot can both slam through an entire mob of enemies and pick up useful power-ups. That I’ve not yet mentioned a menu once is why this is exactly the type of JRPG system that successfully walks the line of building upon a foundation without alienating fans, and simultaneously inviting those put off by similar games’ indirect nature. It adds a physical skill component to the genre-inherent mental acuity, both of which are also tenants of any action game worth its salt. Fantasian doesn’t abandon its identity to attempt emulating mass-market blockbusters; instead, it has the confidence that by making its formula engaging through new avenues it will inherently attract a wider audience. To reiterate, the creative reinvention of aged systems is a more fruitful endeavor than simply plastering on a common solution.

Finally, party member Ez (not quite the best name) stands out for solving another issue endemic to JRPGs: item hoarding. Instead of MP like other characters, Ez’s skills use the gamut of your inventory to craft potent attacks and buffs. All those potions and status cures that’d usually rot away until the credits roll become vital in conquering difficult battles. In fact, you’ll likely find yourself overstocking on items you wouldn’t bother buying in other games just to feed Ez’s consumptive nature. While I’m sure it’s not the first design of its kind, it wraps a bow on Fantasian’s successes in finding creative ways to turn genre woes into genre pros.

All of this is not to say Fantasian is inherently better than the many games before it that didn’t overcome these potholes; I would argue it doesn’t even come close to the genre’s best. But a system as transformative as the Dimengeon will certainly make random battles harder to stomach in future, even in those better games (many made by Sakaguchi himself). If building progress from flaws is to be Sakaguchi’s final statement on the genre he helped spearhead then it’s a message well worth heeding.

Also, if you have any access to an Apple device, please play this game (Apple Arcade is not just on iOS but also on Mac and Apple TV, and there’s a free trial). Though do use a controller if playing on mobile as touch screen navigation will quickly prove untenable.

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