It's no secret that the 3DS is an RPG paradise, with new entries in both fresh and familiar franchises coming out faster than most fans can keep up with. It's an almost infinite bounty of adventure. But could it be more infinite?
Enter RPG Maker Fes. A portable version of the long-running RPG-creation toolkit that lets players craft their own games from start to finish; we looked on with jealousy when it was released in Japan last year, and were ecstatic to hear NISA (NIS America) is taking on the localization for Western shores. We had the chance to go hands-on with an early English build this week in San Francisco, and came away thoroughly impressed: this looks to be a fantastic tool for anyone looking to tell a turn-based tale, and we're incredibly excited at the possibilities it presents.
The core appeal of RPG Maker is, of course, the ability to bring your own game ideas to life, and Fes promises to deliver that by letting you craft story, characters, and some surprisingly complex systems and scenarios without having to worry about any programing. In the build we played we got to try our hand at making different maps, linking them together, and setting up a few 'Events' to turn these elements into something resembling a mini-RPG.
Map-making makes use of an easy touchscreen interface: you select from various tiles — like grass, water, bricks, or dirt — to 'paint' on the canvas, and use the stylus to mold the top-down world as you see fit. Starting with a small green island floating in a larger sea, we added some lakes, a few topographical features, and a mysterious statue in the middle to make a basic overworld. From there, we made a second map to serve as the first 'town' of our quickly emerging adventure, with a simple row of townhouses and coins scattered around for eclectic decoration.
Building these areas was satisfying in itself, but the real power of RPG Maker Fes comes from its Events, which let you bring things to life through connections and feedback. We used one Event, for instance, to link our two maps together, by designating an overworld tile as a (hidden, in this case) portal to the town. Inside the town we added another Event to have a precocious toddler pop up and proclaim "This is my house!" when the player walks up to a certain door.
The fact that we were able to add a decent amount of interactivity in just a few minutes with the game really speaks to the accessibility here. There's even a pre-set palette of 'Easy Events' that let you drop in commonly used gameplay elements, which we used to add a health-restoring Inn to our overworld; all we had to do was choose whether we wanted a male or female innkeeper and set the price for a night's stay, from a nominal fee of 1 gold all the way up to a rather prohibitive 9999.
Even with the option of easy drag-and-drop Events, there still looks to be plenty of from-scratch creative power under the hood. We took a deep dive into the Events menu and saw a smorgasbord of gameplay options that can be set as responses to player input, from starting and stopping timers to shaking the screen or changing the weather, triggering emotes over characters, increasing or decreasing the party's gold, health, or levels, and adding in all manner of dialogue exchanges, story beats, and decision trees. The potential seems almost endless, and in dedicated, creative hands, we can imagine all sorts of experiences coming out of RPG Maker Fes: dating sims, visual novels, and potentially even action games should all be doable with these tools and some imagination.
It helps that the controls were intuitive and easy to get to grips with, with the touchscreen put to good use for drag-and-drop designing and text input. We were especially happy to see that the on-screen keyboard features predictive text input, which should really help with typing out longer dialogue trees and story beats. Trying out our masterpiece at each stage was also a piece of cake, thanks to the simple 'Test Play' function that lets you jump right into the current scene, complete with a debug menu to change parameters for testing purposes. The build-test-tweak loop felt comfortable and natural on the handheld, and should be a great fit for commute-time or couch-time play sessions.
And though we didn't get to spend as much time poking around beyond our map-making and Event creation, there's plenty more to customize there as well: you'll have control over the characters, party and enemies, of course, but also be able to set parameters, names, and descriptions for weapons, items, special attacks, and professions (ala Dragon Quest vocations or Bravely Default's jobs), and cue up different tracks of pre-composed music when and how you see fit.
In terms of art assets, the build we played only had selections from a 'Fantasy' set available; for characters, that meant the usual suspects like mages, fighters, and swordslingers, along with more eclectic models like a mildly terrifying clown. The actual art itself — both in the character portraits and the tiled map elements — reminded us of KEMCO's recent line of 3DS eShop RPGs. Happily, we were told that "Fantasy" is far from the last word on Fes' art; a sci-fi pack was mentioned, and more styles are planned to be included through in-game packs and/or DLC.
Of course, creating your dream game wouldn't be much fun if you had to keep it to yourself, and RPG Maker Fes is built from the ground up to allow for easy online sharing. The most exciting part is that your audience won't be limited to only those who own the creation kit — anyone with a 3DS will be able to play full games made in RPG Maker Fes by downloading a free companion app from the eShop. This is an absolutely fantastic idea, and perhaps Fes' best move: every 3DS owner will gain access to a free library of passion projects, while creators get to build games they can share with the world, rather than just a select in-group of players.
After spending some time with this impressive suite, we can't wait to see what people will come up with — and we're excited to try our hand at it as well. We won't have to wait much longer, thankfully, with RPG Maker Fes planned for a Summer 2017 release - if you've got a story waiting to be told, start your scriptwriting now!