In our lives, we explore, struggle, grow, grieve, and fall in love. In Fantasy Life for the Nintendo 3DS, players can pretend to live another imaginary life. Lives, actually. Factor 5, the developers, offer several Lives (the in-game text always capitalizes the L) to choose. Class options is the term many other games instead use for these Life choices. Fantasy Life, oddly but meta-poignantly, lets you change your Life frequently. Encourages you, even.
The Meaning of Lives
Life simulation games are trendy lately and especially on the 3DS since the success of Animal Crossing: New Leaf. But Fantasy Life is not entirely a simulation like Animal Crossing or The Sims. You could play it that way. You could spend most of your time chopping down trees or whacking deposits with your pickaxe or cooking up some meals. Then use your cash (Dosh) to buy furniture for your house (an attic room at the start). But there is also a real role-playing game, with quests and hit points and magic and leveling up and pets and mounts. How you want to lead your fantasy Lives in Fantasy Life is up to you for fun.
The tension between abstract and direct action in role-playing games continues. The abstract school is still dominant. Where menu-based “Attack” commands as from Final Fantasy have been replaced by icon buttons as in World of Warcraft and Xenoblade Chronicles, the effect is still abstracted. Click on this command, and your character will start auto-attacking. Except for a few instant cast spells, there are also delays before other actions. The interface to players always sets them back from direct interaction with their avatars.
Direct action, where pressing a button immediately leads to your character’s response in the game, is still uncommon enough to relegate these games to the “Action RPG” subgenre. The Zelda series is the most famous to employ this style, and Fantasy Life plants its flag proudly on this frontline. It works well for the top-down viewpoint in Fantasy Life. The world is rendered in 3D, and players can slew the camera around left and right with the shoulder buttons. But the perspective remains fixed to the top-down vantage.
At times, I forgot how my Wizard was free to move during fights, so common is the mechanic that movement interrupts spell casts in many games. The combat is not as fast as a Zelda game, and the tactics often amount to dodging out of the way when an enemy telegraphs an attack. Unlike Zelda games (besides the experimental Adventure of Link, little numbers pop out to indicate damage, experience, and currency.
The world, called Reveria, breaks no new tropes with its medieval setting plus airships. The art resembles Professor Layton games, with adorable long faces and big eyes. The localization effort is remarkable: so much of the dialogue and narration is full of puns and spoonerisms, the task is clearly more writing anew than translating for this team.
The plot involves meteorites. Another tie to a Zelda game (this time Majora’s Mask), the meteorites apparently are of lunar origin. (The reference feels unintentional.) The Moon Tears from Majora appear here as Doomstones, though they have a corrupting property on the inhabitants of Reveria.
The moon, called Lunares in the game, features prominently in the game’s theming. A crescent is part of the title logo in Fantasy Life and makes an appearance on loading screens.
The Meaning of Fantasy Life
Why am I doing this? Why play this game? I had an itch for some of the positive feelings I got from playing World of Warcraft years ago: the cooperative multiplayer teamwork and dense world. But I did not want to recommit to many of its shortcomings: tethered to a computer and the time and scheduling required to feel like I was making progress. I enjoyed exploring and questing, little crafting, and rarely any lore. And I hated grinding.
There is lots of grinding in Fantasy Life. Somehow, it is not so burdensome.
Perhaps Fantasy Life more like Animal Crossing. In Animal Crossing: New Leaf, there are items and inventory. You gather resources and sell vendor trash for currency (Bells). There are no combat or any statistics to level up. There are no enemies; all the NPCs are friendly. Sometimes they give you quests. Interacting with them is part of the appeal. The game clock advances in real time.
So the Animal Crossing players grind through a play session, collecting Bells and items, interacting with NPCs for some personal reputational gain. You design some of your own patterns. Taking your time is part of the design; if you dash, you will ruin the flowers and grass in your town. If you use up all your quests and tasks (common in the start of a new game), there’s nothing to do but grind time until more fruit, seashells, or money rocks respawn.
Xenoblade Chronicles received praise as a console, soloable MMORPG. Players can avoid many of the grindy parts of a true MMORPG through its design. Their quests get turned in automatically at completion. Players can alter the game clock any time, and fast travel between landmarks is almost always available. The inventory system is huge (the menu interface to manage all the items in Xenoblade is a common criticism). A basic crafting system that depends a lot on luck can generate gems to boost your characters’ statistics. Auto-attacks and menu-based spells (“crafts”) abstract the combat.
Fantasy Life finds a happy balance of design elements from Zelda, World of Warcraft, Xenoblade, and Animal Crossing. I doubt the designers specifically examined each of these games for ingredients in cooking up their recipe for Fantasy Life (though the Animal Crossing influences in maintaining your home’s furniture are an obvious inspiration), but there are years of game design evolution at work here.
Like Zelda, combat is direct. Like World of Warcraft, there is a big world to explore, and you can explore it with friends. Like Animal Crossing, you can spend your time gathering, crafting, trading, chatting, and decorating to personalize your Life. Like Xenoblade, the game clock and transportation systems are forgiving to players’ time.
The game system in Fantasy Life is fun and respecting. Still, there are areas with limitations. To be fair, the 3DS operating system imposes some of these. Ally mode, the chat feature that lets you receive notifications of achievements and communications from friends, toggles off every time the system Home menu is invoked or you put your system to sleep. The 3DS cannot keep a connection alive through these interruptions, and other games often disable the Home button entirely during critical online interaction. Ally mode is not critical, so it makes sense that the designers let you continue to use your system normally. But besides a brief alert that Ally mode is off that appears when you return, it is far too easy to forget that you have disconnected, leaving friends often isolated even when both are online in the system Friend menu.
Taking the most fun elements from several gaming predecessors, Factor 5 offers a friendly, portable, balanced game for you to noodle around in. Or power grind if that is still your idea of fun. While some interface limitations and never-fast-enough text can sometimes slow you down, Fantasy Life becomes the hybrid life/role-play adventure game of your choice. With Super Smash Bros also on your 3DS’s memory card, you can have hours of varied gaming with you to enjoy through the remainder of the year.
Mr. Face say this game OKAY.
Mr. Face never wrong!