Originally released in Japan in late December 2012, Level-5 and Brownie Brown’s part life sim, part action RPG Fantasy Life was announced for the West at this past E3 and will see release in Europe on 26th September and on 24th October in North America for the Nintendo 3DS. Selling over 300,000 copies in its native Japan and meriting the Fantasy Life Link! expansion which enhanced its multiplayer experience and added a new map in July 2013, Fantasy Life was a closely watched title in the western games press in part because of its many Japanese games industry pedigrees.
Published by Level-5, developer of the Professor Layton series and quite possibly the video game industry’s answer to Studio Ghibli, Fantasy Life also represents the last shout of Brownie Brown, one of Japan’s most important and influential role-playing studios (shortly after Fantasy Life’s original release in Japan Brownie Brown underwent internal restructuring, becoming 1-UP Studio). Founded by former Squaresoft employees, Brownie Brown developed Mother 3 with Shigesato Itoi and HAL Laboratory for the Game Boy Advance in 2006, and also developed Seiken Densetsu: Final Fantasy Gaiden for the original Game Boy, released in North America as Final Fantasy Adventure and in Europe as Mystic Quest in the early '90s. Two more of Final Fantasy’s early luminaries, scene and character artist Yoshitaka Amano and composer Nobuo Uematsu, are also credited on Fantasy Life.
The results of the collaborative efforts of this who’s who of creative talent are a unique blend of life sim and classic console RPG that brings a fresh and unique experience to Nintendo’s handheld. The visual presentation is all that you would expect from Level-5 with a colourful and pleasing palette, and cartoony but not off-puttingly so artwork. The music and sound effects also match the game’s light-hearted presentation with a decidedly non-symphonic and non-self-consciously epic sound, as typified by the kazoo-heavy fanfare that plays during fanfare-appropriate moments. Fantasy Life is a game that is determined not to take itself too seriously, and this approach also shows in the characters’ dialogue, with enough mature wit to make some exchanges reminiscent of the screwball comedies of 1940's Hollywood in spite of some translation boo-boos. The main story is somewhat low-key in its presentation, again paying homage to classic RPG storytelling while throwing in a few distinctly modern twists.
Fantasy Life proudly displays its console roots with such classic gameplay features as the day/night cycle determining the types of villagers and monsters you’ll encounter, and button-smacking special move-based action RPG combat; it also brings new and much-needed innovation to its other stock-in-trade, the life sim.
Some life sims emphasise charm in presentation and ‘because it’s there’ as a means of keeping players coming back, but Fantasy Life has added gameplay elements to each of the twelve available jobs in the game — called ‘Lives’ — that make exploring at least a few of them worthwhile for any player. Unlike most other console RPG job systems, Fantasy Life is designed to develop player characters on a horizontal path in addition to the usual vertical one of levelling up and assigning points to various stats. Each Life has a certain number of ranks, each of which grant certain skills such as being able to make or use better equipment. Instead of wiping the slate clean when changing Lives, characters retain the skills (except for Special Skills, a category of unusually useful or powerful techniques) from all previous Lives lived.
In practical terms, this means a player can spend some time gaining ranks as a miner, move on to gain some ranks in blacksmithing and then opt to live the Life of a mercenary. While out adventuring, the character retains enough knowledge as a miner to gather materials to use back in the city to forge their own armour or weapons with their blacksmithing knowledge. Even though the player, currently living as a mercenary, won’t have access to the most efficient or powerful techniques from their other Lives they certainly retain enough of these skills to be useful; Lives can be changed (or changed back) at any time with no penalty whatsoever. All of this adds up to tremendous gameplay benefits when exploring Fantasy Life's life sim aspects.
Other, more classical, life sim gameplay elements in Fantasy Life include player clothing that can be dyed different colours, and the ability to keep pets. No life sim-leaning title would be complete without a room of one’s own to decorate, and Fantasy Life offers a particularly personal touch with the ability to build your own furniture as a carpenter. Dedicated decorators can move into larger spaces located about the map and holiday homes are also available.
Fantasy Life gives the player a great deal of flexibility in how they live their Lives or which Lives they live. It’s possible to play Fantasy Life as a mostly straightforward RPG by selecting one of the combat-oriented Lives and concentrating on following the main storyline, or to sign up for one of the gathering or production-heavy Lives and spend time in the city living by trade and admiring the drapes in off hours.
Although Fantasy Life has been a long time in reaching the West a game this appealing in its presentation, with so much to do and so many options for the player, is bound to be an attractive title for life sim and RPG fans alike. Are you ready for a new life?
(Fantasy Life will be available in Europe on 26th September and in North America on 24th October. The western release will include the online and local multiplayer functionality that were only available in Japan as part of the Fantasy Life Link! expansion, although for the west the new map included with Fantasy Life Link! — called Origin Island — will only be available as day-one paid DLC).