"Sometimes you can just tell the difference between a game made with care, where the delight of the player is core to the experience."
We all know the Final Fantasy series has a long history dating back to 1987. Many people reading this were first exposed to Square Enix's venerable series almost 30 years ago on the NES. Many more were brought into the fold with Final Fantasy VII in 1997. When a company has a franchise where, counting main titles, spin-offs, and sequels, they've released over 50 titles, they have a deep history to draw upon for future games. Square Enix has explored this history by bringing their games and characters together in several ways over the years, from the fighting games of Dissidia to the musical Theatrhythm. Typically, like most of the main entries in the series, these mixed games have been well-received.
Then Final Fantasy: All the Bravest happened, which gave many fans pause. It sounded good on the surface: 16-bit graphics, hearkening back to the SNES titles of the 1990s, characters pulled from every Final Fantasy prior and since, epic battles, all on your mobile device. Nostalgia drove interest in All the Bravest, but the resulting "gameplay" turns out to rely not on battle tactics, but swiping your finger furiously across your screen until you win. And that great roster of your favorite characters? You pay to unlock them, but you earn random characters. So you may hope to get Cloud, but instead you get a pig. Literally, the pig you can be turned into in the classic FF titles, is an unlockable "character."
ATB does have its fans, but the kind of game it offers is not at all what most FF fans were hoping for, and I feel the game is a prime example of how a free game with in-app purchases can be used to prey on people's nostalgia.
I tell you all of this not to besmirch the name of All the Bravest, but to make it clear that if you're hesitant seeing the words "free-to-play mobile Final Fantasy" together, I know how you feel. But more importantly, I explain all of this because I'm happy to report that Final Fantasy: Record Keeper is nostalgia done right. This
is the game that we wanted when we saw the teasers for All the Bravest. This is the game that brings you back to those moments from yesteryear without feeling dirty for paying real-life money on a pixelated pig. This is the game that proves "free-to-play mobile Final Fantasy" can absolutely work.
Final Fantasy: Record Keeper opens in a hall that houses "the Great Chronicle:" the combined history of every Final Fantasy world, memories preserved in paintings, and watched over by Dr. Mog, the Record Keeper. Suddenly, a dark power appears in the sky, eroding the records. Dr. Mog tasks new protagonist Tyro with entering each hall and reliving the old records to restore history. It's a basic story, but it gives us context for why we're back infiltrating Castle Baron or Mako Reactor No. 5. Along the way, we meet up with the heroes of old, and that's where things get interesting.
At the outset, you aren't free to explore every Final Fantasy world. At first, only the opening chapter of Final Fantasy VII is available. As you clear chapters, additional areas open up, sometimes within the same world, or in that of another title. Every offline numbered Final Fantasy is represented here, and any hero you recruit can be taken into any world. There is, however, an incentive for using characters in their home world when possible, and that's the Synergy system. When battling in their own world, a character is given a stat boost: more HP, higher strength, and so on. Also playing into this system is the equipment you'll earn for your party members. Every piece of gear is attached to a specific game. So while it seems silly to say this one particular bronze helmet is specifically from Final Fantasy II, that means that in the FFII world, that helmet has better stats, in addition to any boost your character innately has.
This system offers a substantial enough boost that using the summoner Rydia in the FFIV world, outfitted with FFIV gear, actually resulted in her doing higher physical damage than Cloud, who, as you'd imagine, has a super high strength rating. As some boss battles can get tough, it pays off to make use of this system and keep a stockpile of equipment for each situation.
Spells and abilities are treated like equipped gear, and can be moved between characters. A character can still only use abilities appropriate to their class — Cloud can't use Black Magic, for example — but this makes it easier to freely swap characters without losing access to key spells. Because both equipment and abilities can be upgraded at increasingly-expensive costs, this also means you needn't worry about having to spend a ton of gil and materials upgrading Fire for every Black Magic user you have. It's a very user-friendly system in that respect.
Equipment and upgrade materials are all dropped in battle, somewhat randomly, though certain battles will yield specific materials. If you're hell-bent on buying or upgrading one specific thing, I could see this being potentially grindy on an MMO level, securing materials, but I haven't felt the need to do that in my own game yet. That said, every piece of gear in the game can be synthed to increase its potency, and then combined with a duplicate piece of gear to create an all-new piece of equipment. There's quite a bit of depth in the systems here, much more than I expected.
As for the battles themselves, the battle system is a straight-up version of Final Fantasy's Active Time Battle (ATB) system. Watch the ATB bar under your party members fill up, select a command, and that's it. Classic turn-based combat that still works today. You can specify targets for both offensive and defensive abilities or just tap the icon and let the game decide for you. The AI seems intelligent — you can simply cast Cure, and your healer will heal whatever party member needs it the most. There's even an Auto-Battle button for when you know your characters can handle an encounter and you just want to speed through it and get your potential treasures or materials.
In fact, as my party gets stronger, I rely on Auto for many of the earlier standard battles. Most standard battles seem easy enough, but this is offset by the much more challenging bosses, which will destroy you if you rely on Auto-Battle. Whether it's because they have specific weaknesses or because they have a special stance in which they retaliate with a devastating counter if you don't stay your blade, bosses require actual strategy. It's sometimes a good idea to even come into battle with certain abilities in tow. Not only to make the battle easier, but because bosses can yield bonus rewards by fulfilling certain conditions, such as attacking with an element they're weak against.
Let's talk about Record Keeper's high production values for a moment. One look at the game's interface makes it apparent that the developers put real care into the UI, from the details of the great hall to the engraved stone window designs. In battle, animations are smooth and lively. There are old-school FFVI-style sprites, but spell effects are super slick and modern. The Synergy system I spoke of is made visually apparent by a glowing aura around empowered characters, and earning items in battle is accompanied by beautiful dancing light effects. Bosses look similar to their SNES counterparts in screen shots, but are animated now. Even bosses in which the original sprites were ported into RK have idle and attack animations: FFIV's Mist Dragon breathes deeply as mists swirl around her, FFX's Sinpawn has glowing, flailing tentacles, and more. I kind of wish the regular enemies got this treatment too, but it manages to make the boss battles more special. All said, as RPGFan's Creative Director, I pay special attention to a game's visuals, and I'm more than pleased at how well put-together the graphics are in Record Keeper.
While some classic elements were updated, one thing that wasn't touched at all is the music. The developers at DeNA and Square Enix were very clear about the importance of music to people's sense of nostalgia, which is why every song used throughout each game world is directly from the original game. While I personally wouldn't be opposed to certain arrangements making an appearance, I also think there's some real truth to the logic of using only the originals, so I can't fault them for wanting to be true to the source.
Okay, so far everything sounds good, right? Where does the free-to-play stuff come in? That would be the stamina bar, a gameplay device that has caused me to delete many an iOS game. I'll always remember downloading a new entry in an established mini-golf game. It was the first free entry in the series, and it relied on a power gauge and special currency. That game was so stingy with its power meter that I didn't even have enough to finish a single round of golf before I was presented with the choice between waiting hours or days to refill my energy or paying money to play a few more holes. Whether or not that stinginess ended up bring profitable, I don't know, but it was far too restrictive for my tastes.
With all of this in the back of my head, I was apprehensive about Record Keeper's stamina meter, but DeNA has put my fears to rest with their handling of it, which is very user-friendly. Every encounter in the game uses a set number of stamina points. This number slowly increases with higher level battles. But what's key is that, as you clear more content, your stamina gauge increases — and that increase is larger if you earn high marks on boss battles. In addition, stamina slowly replenishes, one point at a time, every few minutes, whether or not you're in-game. And when you earn extra stamina from a boss? Your meter is completely refilled as a result.
What this means is that the stamina meter is a very give-and-take process. If you play Record Keeper the way its designed to be played — a little here, a little there — I don't think you'll even notice it much of the time. If you haven't seen Record Keeper's Japanese commercials
, you might want to, as they give you an idea of the situations this game is designed for.
Of course, if you really do want to sit down with your phone and play for 6 straight hours, then I can see you hitting 0 stamina and needing to refill. But even this scenario isn't terrible, thanks to RK's two forms of premium currency: Mythril and Gems. Both are used for various things in-game, such as the chance to earn a high-level piece of gear, replenishing stamina, or restoring your party to full HP to avoid a Game Over. Gems are only obtainable with real-life currency, to the tune of approximately 1 cent (USD) per Gem. Mythril, however, is earned in-game as login rewards and from clearing chapters with a high score. It's important to note that both Gems and Myrhril are used for identical purposes in-game: Gems are quicker to obtain if you choose to buy them, but successful battles will earn you Mythril and not cost a dime.
I think what's key is that both currencies can be used interchangeably, meaning that nothing is locked behind a paywall. It's a fair system and doesn't appear too greedy. Personally, I have no trouble spending some
money on a game if I like it enough — I come from a time in which I happily spent $85 on Chrono Trigger back in 1995.
One quick little aside on Stamina: I was surprised to see that, on iOS 8, Record Keeper actually offers a Today view widget
that displays your current stamina, letting you check your meter without even launching the game. I don't have an Android device on which to test RK to know if that version also features Notification Center integration. On iOS, Record Keeper also makes simple use of Game Center, if that's your thing. It's a basic implementation, but not all developers even do that much, so it's an interesting touch.
There are two gameplay elements I have not yet acquainted myself with: Events and Limit Break. Limit Breaks are not what you think: your characters do
have powerful attacks that gradually build up such as VII's Limit Breaks, but here they're referred to as Soul Breaks. Record Keeper's Limit Breaks are more akin to FFX's "Break Damage Limit" ability, and allows you to level a character beyond the initial level cap of 50. My understanding is that each character has their own Limit Break item that raises the cap by 15 levels at a time. These are buried in dungeons — the harder Elite versions, I'd wager — and can be obtained multiple times to continually raise that character's level. Again, this is my understanding, and is based on the Japanese version, so this may be different in the English version.
Events are not something I've been able to experience, as I've been playing it pre-release and there haven't been any available. Events are limited-time quests that offer new equipment and/or characters as a reward. Once the event is over, those rewards can no longer be obtained, but the developers have mentioned that at some point, certain rewards/events may repeat, although there's no telling when. Depending on how Events are handled and how much time investment is required on a weekly basis, I can see this feature being key to maintaining Record Keeper's momentum. It will give you a reason to keep checking the game and seeing what's new.
If you haven't noticed by now, I'm quite fond of Final Fantasy: Record Keeper. It lets me relive some of my favorite Final Fantasy moments with a party of my choosing, because I've always wanted Terra and Kain in the same party. But it lets me do this from anywhere, in an accessible package that's much more suited to gaming on the go compared to trying to find the time to sit and play a full 50-hour RPG on my iPhone. Most importantly, it accomplishes all this in a way that doesn't make me feel like a second-class citizen rotting beneath a &%#*in' pizza, the way most free-to-play games make me feel.
DeNA and Square Enix have accomplished something here that I think is remarkable. They reimagined the games we've been playing for 28 years into a new form that we can take anywhere. It's a game that's designed specifically for these devices we all carry around, not one that was designed for a console and shoehorned into a 5" touch screen. I think the admiration the developers themselves have for Final Fantasy and its history are what drove them here. Sometimes you can just tell the difference between a game made with care, where the delight of the player is core to the experience. That's what I feel Record Keeper is: a game made with love for both its source material and the fans who are playing it. It's nostalgia done right.