It's been seven years since Level-5's toylike RPG masterpiece Fantasy Life came to the 3DS in the West, and like addicts seeking our next hit we've been searching for something that replicates that feeling ever since. Between games like Ni No Kuni (also Level-5) and cutesy Rune Factory-likes such as Littlewood, we've come close... but in a surprising twist, Kitaria Fables is the younger sibling to Fantasy Life that we never saw coming.
The pitch doesn't really do the game justice: "a delightfully cute action adventure RPG with farming and crafting" makes us feel that another-farming-game fatigue that followed in the wake of Stardew Valley, and the cat theming, we'll be honest, left us expecting something twee and hollow. After all, we've been burned by cute-looking stuff before.
Instead, what we found was a wonderfully robust and surprisingly sprawling RPG that's actually cute — so many games don't quite nail cuteness, but the second we met Timmy, the young chinchilla that runs a small shop in your home village, we were sold.
The central conflict in Kitaria Fables is pretty standard RPG fare: monsters becoming more aggressive, 'we need a hero', 'oh look here's a hero right here', 'it's dangerous to go alone', etc. There's an undercurrent of an ominous nature, too, as magic has been banned for secret reasons.
You'll quickly be introduced to the "classless" combat system, in which you'll be able to use a sword, a bow, and the four elemental magics to craft your own loadout of spells and melee. Weapons and armour can be upgraded with monster materials and a big chunk of change, making your attacks hit harder and your health last longer.
So, yes, Kitaria Fables certainly isn't trying to break the mould, but that linearity isn't necessarily a bad thing. Playing Kitaria Fables feels like treading the boards of a café that you go to every day: it's comforting, warm, and reassuring. If you like games that engage your brain with mindless-yet-enjoyable grinding interspersed with some extremely light farming and the occasional quest or new area to explore, then Kitaria Fables is perfect.
The part of it that's most Fantasy Life, though, is the combat. Much like Fantasy Life would let you switch between classes to take on monsters as a Paladin, Mercenary, Hunter, or Magician, Kitaria Fables lets you choose how you want to beat up slimes ("Gooeys") and golems. If you prefer the visceral, hard-hitting sword (and don't mind the risk-reward factor), then you can dump all your materials into upgrading it; if you prefer the slow-burn range of magics and archery, then there's plenty for you, too. And, of course, you can mix-and-match on the fly, depending on the enemy or the terrain.
Again, like Fantasy Life, there are a number of distinct, themed areas — a desert, a frozen mountain, several cave dungeons, and a forest — and each one has different free-roaming Things To Kill that match the climate. There are bosses, too, which range from tricky-for-beginners to this-guy-can-kill-you-with-a-glance, and it's only by levelling up your equipment that you'll be in with a chance of slaying them. They respawn every new day, too, so you'll be able to get plenty of practice in, but since increased damage and HP are tied to your ability to collect materials and cash, and not your XP, it'll require a lot of grinding.
In between story missions and the light farming, it's the grinding that makes up most of the game: gathering materials that sell for a lot of money, investing that money into weapons, using upgraded weapons to slay monsters for more materials, rinse and repeat. That grind isn't for everyone, but it certainly is for us, and although there were times when the game dragged (specifically when one quest required a bunch of vegetables that took multiple days to grow), it picked up again once we'd done the necessary work.
A few minor issues mar the experience, like the odd audio bug that seems to make the water.wav sound effect play on top of itself a hundred or so times, which means that walking past a serene river sounds like standing at the foot of Niagara Falls. This is easily fixed by closing and re-opening the game, but it's pretty jarring in a game that's got an otherwise lovely soundscape.
A more serious bug is the tendency for enemies in certain areas to fall off the map, which is only really a problem in certain circumstances where the way is blocked until you can defeat all the monsters, resulting in you being trapped in a cave and forced to reset to the last save (which is usually once per day). The patch notes for update 1.0.4 hopes to fix this, but this patch hasn't been pushed to the Switch at the time of writing (we just got 1.0.2).
The slightly wonky pacing and lack of knowledge of where to acquire certain materials makes it hard to progress in the first few hours, but we can't say we really minded, since it was during those first few hours that we fell in love with the game, after all. We do wish that there were more fast-travel points — some of them are spaced weirdly far apart, and a couple of the towns only have one-way portals — although it's hard to say if this is a bug or an oversight.
One thing we really can't let Kitaria Fables get away with is the minuscule text. There are three UI sizes, and we had it set to "Large" the whole time, but both handheld and on the TV, it was like reading a book from across the room. It's surprising, because other accessibility considerations, like fully remappable buttons, are there from the start, but the itty-bitty text is hopefully something that will be tweaked in future, because right now you'll give yourself a headache from all the squinting you'll have to do.
Even with these bugs and issues, though, Kitaria Fables has been an absolute delight. We've played for 30 hours in total, and although the ending is a little abrupt, almost all of those 30 hours have been filled with hopeful joy that Fantasy Life lives on in the DNA of indies like this.
A fantastic tribute to Fantasy Life that nails the kind of grindy combat that many people love, Kitaria Fables is genuinely sweet and impressively well-made for a three-person team in under three years. If Fantasy Life is a Wagyu beef steak, Kitaria Fables is a really, REALLY good burger. If you're jonesing for a tasty action-farming-adventure, Kitaria Fables has you covered.