Saturday, 29 November 2014

Whiskey Reviews: Fantasy Life

Info:
Platform: 3DS
Release Date: 26 September 2014
Developer: Level-5
Publisher: Nintendo
Where to get it: Anywhere that sells 3DS games
Price: £27.99

The 3DS isn't a console short of quality games, what with Super Mario 3D Land, Smash Bros, Monster Hunter Tri, etc. It can be quite difficult for a game on a handheld system to stand out at the best of times, doubly so when on a console so heavily populated with hugely popular titles. Fantasy Life takes three popular things and mashes them all together so hit the link to find out if it's Frankenstein's Monster or The Fly.



Trick question - they're both great and so is Fantasy Life.

Fantasy Life comes from the same developers that have bought us magnificent experiences such as Professor Layton, Ni No Kuni and Dragon Quest 8 so the developers have a lot to live up to if they want to score high marks. Lets begin by taking a look at the three main pillars that make up the experience.

While obstensibly an action RPG at heart the game offers twelve "lives", which are basically classes, that cover the disciplines of gathering, crafting and combat. On the gathering front you have miner, angler, woodcutter. For crafting you have the carpenter, blacksmith, tailor, alchemist and cook. Last but not least, for combat you have the mercenary, paladin, hunter and magician.
Each life has special actions unlocked by progressing through the ranks from Novice to Legend but the basic actions of the job can be performed by any life, a paladin can still mine ore for example. This alleviates what could potentially have been a cumbersome system while still providing enough of an incentive to change to the non-combat classes somewhat regularly thanks to the special actions making crafting take less time or easier to produce better quality items. 
Challenges to progress a life can also be completed by any other life, a paladin crafting a challenge item for a carpenter will still complete the challenge, but a life cannot progress to the next rank unless you have it equipped when you speak to the trainer. This does provide a little frustration, especially early on when you're rising through the ranks rather quickly and may be jumping between classes one after another just to level them up but at around rank 5 in each job progression slows down and you have to focus on actually proceeding.

The second method of progression is Bliss, completed via a small set of tasks such as talking to a specific person or gathering a certain amount of money. These tasks are usually very easy and often completed inadvertently while exploring or selling loot and crafted items.
Bliss is vital to progressing the story, with each new story mission only unlocking once all the tasks in the current Bliss list are completed each time. This means you can end up blowing through the story at a relatively fast pace, limited more by your level and skills rather than the difficulty of earning Bliss but it also means you can take the story completely at your own pace. I personally found myself spending days ignoring the next story mission to complete life challenges instead, and only progressing with the story when I could no longer level up my chosen class due to locked areas of the world.
Finally Bliss also acts like a leveling up mechanic by awarding you a single perk every time you acquire a certain number of points. These perks range from having a music player in your house to riding or owning a horse or having a bigger inventory. Generally the upgrades are 'quality of life' improvements to gameplay which allow you more time in the field or faster travel or more items available for purchase in shops.

Completing the progression triangle is experience points which operate in a more straightforward manner. Awarded for killing monsters, gathering materials or crafting items the points go towards RPG standard milestone amounts that then provide you with a level-up that awards you several attribute points to spend as you see fit.
Initially expanding your attribute points doesn't seem that great but the levels quickly begin to add up to some serious bonuses towards every action you can undertake - dropping points in strength will improve melee damage and mining ability for example.

It all sounds a bit overwhelming and complicated doesn't it? Well, I can happily say that the game presents you with systems and abilities at a leisurely pace and provides enough room to experiment and figure out how each system works without being frustrating or overly confusing.
This is partially due to the way minute-to-minute gameplay works. You typically choose something you're going to do such as get to the next life rank, which means you'll look at your life challenge list and see a bunch of tasks to complete. Maybe you want to rank-up your blacksmith, the challenge might call for you to craft a specific set of armour which needs certain items to craft - knowing this you then decide where to go to get those items (or just buy them) and find out what you need to kill or where in the area the mines or herbs or whatever appear and this all adds up to provide you with clear cut goals that you always feel like you're setting for yourself.

And that's just the overall progression system! Combat is just as deep. You'll spend a lot of your time whacking wildlife with swords, daggers, bows and elemental magic so it's a relief that the combat system is easy enough to master with only a little effort but deep enough to be rewarding.
Special moves in combat fall into two types; charged up and combos:
Charged moves are achieved by holding the attack button for a short period, with two levels of charge performing two different moves for each class. These are typically a basic variant on your normal attack such as spinning around with the sword for multiple hits or firing an arrow that stuns or pierces an enemy. Using these attacks at the right time can change the tide of combat completely and take chunks off of even powerful opponents health bars. Getting hit while charging however will reset the charge to zero and make you start over.
The second form of attack is the combo; performed using a series of timed button presses, utilizing chains of attacks followed by a brief pause and then press again, or simply continuous rhythmic presses you can pull off a variety of moves for each class. 
A hunter for example may fire three arrows (three rapid button presses), then while the third arrow is being loosed, jump into the air and fire a spread of arrows (a brief pause then press again while the third arrow is flying).
Each class has its own combinations of button presses of varying difficulties but the timings are typically tied to animations and a little skill and restraint will quickly make the different moves muscle memory and turn the button-mashing newbie into a seasoned, devastating fighter.
Gathering professions also benefit from timed button presses, with miners and carpenters being able to gather far faster if the button is pressed at the right point in the animation. Thanks to these simple mechanisms being repurposed for different situations the control scheme remains consistent and a pleasure to use without succumbing to boredom despite utilizing the attack/action button near constantly.

The rest of the game shows just as much love and charm, sometimes coming across as sickeningly cute in doing so. Some dialogue exchanges run on for far too long, and the end of each story mission generally has you reporting in to several NPCs for near-repeats of the same conversation that lead to outright aggravation by the fifth time.
These are minor quibbles compared to the well designed and large world that seems to keep growing with each passing mission. Whether it's from a new zone unlocking or discovering a new dungeon or even just finding a slew of new quests around town it always feels like there's more to do and discover.
It's a bit overwhelming at times but thanks to the aforementioned self-set goals you can usually bring your focus down to a more manageable level and work your way through the staggering amount of content at your own pace and on your own terms.

There's also the homes mechanic which allows you to purchase a house in each of the world's major cities. These three homes can be teleported to at will and provide a place to save the game, heal or access your storage chest.
Basic functions aside you can also decorate your homes however you see fit, changing the walls, floors and window positions and styles as well as placing various pieces of furniture around the room via a grid based editor that makes everything a doddle.
You can also have two pets which live in your homes and can be picked up as party members, they're not the strongest but they are the easiest to access at most times and provide welcome adventuring companions.
I often found myself neglecting to decorate my homes, since my idea of aesthetics is to paint it black and pretend it doesn't exist, but there's enough room (pun intended) to be creative in the designs and the homes provide a much welcome way of spending crafting resources or money to make them look pretty, or pirate-y if you're into that.

Multiplayer via the internet is also present. Three players can all jump into the same game world and explore at their leisure. The amount of the world that's unlocked is down to the host's story progress but players aren't tied to the same map so you can either group up or all go do your own thing.
Sadly you can't hand in quests or level up your classes while in a multiplayer game but you can still complete the quests and challenges together, you just have to wait until you're alone to reap the rewards.
Trading isn't handled the most elegantly however; a chest sits in the guild hall that any player can take items out of in a multiplayer game. However if the session ends any items in this box are simply lost so you can't really just leave items in there for a friend to pick up the next time they pass the guild office because if you have a connection hiccup the items are gone for good. It's still perfectly functional so long as you're both standing at the chest and don't leave anything sitting in there for more than a few seconds though.
As is common in Nintendo games, you can only play with people you are already friends with however, which stifles any notion of a multiplayer community but does allow for each multiplayer session to feel more personal and connected.
Communication is limited to short text messages and handful of gestures, four of which can be assigned to the D-pad at any given time. One of these gestures, sitting down, has an additional benefit of regenerating your stamina faster too.

The inventory system is straightforward, allowing you to equip a weapon and several pieces of armour and possibly a shield if your class allows for it as well as gathering and crafting tools.
It's all neatly arranged into tabs that are easily navigable either via the shoulder buttons or touch screen (all menus take place on the touch screen) and usually keeps the inventory from seeming too cluttered.
The ability to equip all the crafting and gathering tools at once is a genius move that helps keep gameplay flowing and doesn't hamper the crafting or gathering mechanics by tying them to a certain class.
Honestly there's not much to say about the inventory system; it has gorgeous little icons for every item that are expressive enough to allow you to identify the items you want easily and the tab-based sorting system lets you find what you need quickly and easily.
In addition to the regular inventory you also have your quick access pouch - an eight-slot bag accessible at any time via the touch screen that lets you instantly cast healing items or eat food and drink either in the field or in battle without slowing down the actions with cumbersome menus.

It's frankly astounding just how much there is to Fantasy Life. The game's about exploration and discovery, personal progression and personalizing yourself and your belongings while meeting new friends and enemies on your travels. It excels at all these aspects but some minor hiccups such as the trading mechanics and need to have a certain life equipped in order to level it up means that it's not a perfect game but it does come far closer than most manage.
I've actually lost whole nights of sleep to Fantasy Life. Sometimes two or three nights in a row. About 80 hours in my desire to constantly play the game is waning to make way for other huge games that were released recently but it's something I'll no doubt still be chipping away at for months to come.

Score: 9 fantasies out of 10 involve boobs. Heh, boobs.