It’s a truism that you can’t take more than a few steps in a Japanese role-playing game without triggering a random battle. Each encounter transports you to a separate screen where your party of heroes faces off against critter-like enemies, who rarely put up much of a fight. Historically, game developers have relied on these repetitive and boring battles to pad out adventures.
Fantasian at least does something novel with the concept. Once our hero Leo and his companions acquire a device called the Dimengeon, they no longer trigger random battles as they crisscross the landscape. Instead, enemies are collected by this device, hoovered up like spooks in a Ghostbuster’s proton pack, and you choose when you stop to fight them. as a result, exploring is more brisk and fluid.
When you pop open the Dimengeon, fighting dozens of basic enemies still isn’t much of a challenge, but these massed ranks encourage you to practice different skills. Attacks can be directed with precision using finger swipes to strike multiple enemies, and by the time you reach tougher boss fights you have a better grasp of what everything does.
Bosses range from towering minotaurs and fire-breathing salamanders to possessed gondolas and even magical money trees (nobody tell Theresa May), and require ordered use of your abilities to dispatch. A careless approach leaves you circling the drain with multiple adventurers down, unable to revive and heal them before further devastating attacks rain down on you.
Developer Mistwalker’s ingenuous world design presents Fantasian as a series of miniature dioramas, like a fantasy version of the Island of Sodor from Thomas the Tank Engine. These touched-up photographic environments evade easy comparison to the pixel or rendered art of similar games. Fantasian’s unique appearance is most striking on a larger iPhone or iPad, where it’s easier to appreciate the real-world materials transformed by its spell, but it still looks good on a regular iPhone.
It’s a pity that the story underpinning all these pleasant ideas isn’t quite as bold. Our protagonist Leo is a spiky-haired youth with amnesia, who teams up with a mystical forest girl and a hot-tempered princess to save a world ravaged by magical corruption. As they roam the human and machine realms, our heroes contemplate the nature of death and destiny. Mistwalker’s Hironobu Sakaguchi has spent his life building RPGs like this, so you would think he would be tired of these tropes by now, but here they are again.
Still, there’s always just enough unexpected peril, quirky banter and new horizons to keep things interesting. Musical accompaniment by the veteran composer Nobuo Uematsu helps enormously, and there are plenty of ditties now lodged in my brain.
Much as our heroes are caught between two worlds, Fantasian has one foot in design dogma while the other paddles around cautiously in new ideas. The result is a lengthy and sumptuous genre piece, the equivalent of a good Netflix movie that you probably wouldn’t watch at the cinema. These days, that’s more of a compliment than it used to be.