Monday, December 01, 2014


Fantasy Life

A lot of video games try to offer you an immersive world where you can be whatever kind of person you want and do whatever you want in a fully realized world, but of course many of them fall short.  Every system has its limitations, and every game sort of gently nudges the player down a certain path.  Animal Crossing encourages the player to gather materials and be nice to their neighbors because that's what you're rewarded for.  Most RPGs encourage the player to pursue combat situations because that's how you gain power and advance the story.

Compared to a lot of other games I've played, Fantasy Life comes closest to the ideal of a world where you can be what you want and do what you want.

If I had to put a genre on it, I'd call Fantasy Life an RPG.  It takes place in a magical medieval fantasy kingdom, and you get to create a character and earn experience points and all that.  The character classes are called Lives in the game, and the first interesting thing is that not all of them are combat-oriented.  You can, if you so choose, become a Cook or a Tailor or a Miner, just as easily as you could become a Hunter or a Mercenary or a Paladin.  Moreover, you stand just as good a chance of finishing the game regardless of your chosen Life because combat isn't very important.  In fact, it's entirely optional.

Let me stress that -- you can finish the entire story of this game without ever once killing anything.  It's not even very difficult.  How do they manage that?  Well, for one thing, this is a real-time RPG as opposed to a turn-based RPG, so avoiding combat is as simple as staying out of the way when wild animals (I'm reluctant to call such obviously natural creatures "monsters") are about.  For another thing, the bosses don't need to be faced head-on.  All of the bosses are "shadow creatures", normal creatures under the influence of a "Doomstone".  If you crack the Doomstone, the creature is freed and it returns to normal.  Of course, you have to do this while dodging its attacks, so it's not a cakewalk.

You might wonder what you actually do in an RPG where there's no fighting.  Well, what do you do in most RPGs?  You solve problems by moving from one place to another, meeting key characters, finding and delivering key items, and fighting bosses.  The only difference here is that there isn't a half an hour of level grinding to do between each plot point.  You still solve problems by moving from Point A to Point B and giving Item C to Character D.

So what's the challenge if you can just run away from everything?  Well... there isn't one.  This isn't a very difficult game.  But that's fine for two reasons.  One is because it has a lovely story with funny and colorful characters.  The other is that every Life is basically its own little game in and of itself.

See, every Life comes with a list of objectives, and as you succeed at them, you level up in that Life and gain new abilities and get new lists of objectives.  So if you're a hunter, you'll be tasked with fighting ever more dangerous creatures.  If you're a cook, you'll have to hunt down the ingredients to ever more exotic dishes.  It might sound odd to level grind by playing the cooking minigame over and over again, but is it any odder than level grinding by fighting the same creatures over and over again?

You can also multi-class.  Say you're a combat character like a Paladin.  You get knocked around quite a lot while you're pursuing your Life goals.  If you want to save some money, you can take a few levels as an Alchemist and brew your own healing potions.  You can save some more money by becoming a Blacksmith and forging your own weapons and armor.  You can save even more money by becoming a Miner and gathering the ore that you need to forge your weapons and armor.  Luckily, none of this daisy-chaining is required if it doesn't interest you, but the best items go to the players who put in the most legwork.

But here's the big question.  They wanted to make a game where you could complete the story no matter which Life you chose, so they couldn't require you to pursue any particular skills.  If you don't need to gain all of these levels and acquire all of these skills to finish the story, then what's the point of doing it?

Well, you do it for its own sake.

See, this is a role-playing game in the "role-playing" sense.  It's about getting an idea for a character and trying to realize that character.  It's about imagining a life for yourself and then leading it.  Some people call it a "life sim", and if you like that description better, it fits.

The game starts you off with this pep talk about all of the possibilities that life has to offer and gets you to think about what you want out of it.  Then the opening cinematic takes you on a fly-by tour of the central city of Castele, and you get a sort of sampler of all the different Lives in the game.  In one scene, there's a little hunter dude who shoots a bird out of the sky while concealed in the bushes, and for whatever reason, this little bit appealed to me.  I saw myself as a hunter, living on the outskirts of town, making a living selling game.  I'd be an independent sort.  Take up Woodcutting and Carpentry and Cooking and Tailoring to supplement my lifestyle.  And then I dared the game to let me build my vision.

And it did!

One of the things you can do pretty early on is move into a log cabin on the outskirts of town, with easy access to the hunting and foraging in the plains beyond.  To my surprise, I found out I could get a hunting dog to go on quests with me.  It's taken me some time, and I've only really gotten experience in Hunting and Cooking so far, but the game has never told me "No, you're doing it wrong."  Halfway through the game, I decided to become a Cook and a complete pacifist just to see what the game would do, and the game was perfectly fine with this.

The game does that wonderful trick of never really contradicting what you imagine your character to be, so your story really becomes your own.  I find myself doing little role-playing things that don't have anything to do with the story or the game mechanics, like "Whoa, it's getting late, better stay here for the night and head home in the morning."  When I'm away from the game, I find myself thinking about how my character feels about what's happening in the game and what's going to happen next.

As an aside, I quite like the Cook's Life.  Every new town you come to, you check the markets for new ingredients and do a little foraging in the surrounding regions.  Then you bundle up all of your new stuff and take it to the nearest kitchen (any restaurant in the game will freely lend you a workspace) and play a little mini-game to fix up some dishes.  You sell for a profit, buy some more ingredients, and so on.  I particularly like the fact that the game will just as happily draw ingredients from your inventory or from your storage without bothering you to switch them back and forth.  I can just drop off my ingredients whenever I come in from a forage, and when I'm ready to cook, I can get on with it.

In fact, as I've said, every Life seems to be its own little game.  Even the bits that sound like they'd be tedious drudge work like Mining or Woodcutting have their own little story arc that has you wandering the world in search of new minerals and woods, little minigames to master, and yes, even bosses to defeat.  I suspect that I'm going to end up trying all of the Lives sooner or later, not because of the strategic advantages of daisy-chaining the gather-craft-adventure mechanics together, but because it seems like they'll all have their own interesting things to do.

The world does have its limitations though.  First, there are gatekeepers to prevent you from wandering too freely before you've advanced the story sufficiently.  Second, you may not be able to reach Master status in some Lives unless you've got some experience in other Lives.  For example, there's a recipe in my list that calls for eels, and I haven't been able to find them in any of the markets.  I'm starting to suspect that I'll need to become an Angler if I'm ever going to get any.  These limitations are pretty visible, but I dunno, I was able to live with them.

So all together?  This game is a pretty neat kind of a thing.  The story is kind of ordinary in its "wander the land and gather the things" kind of way, but it's told well, the characters are cool, it's often very funny, and it's occasionally kind of touching.  The story is supported by a world with an economy of gathering and crafting that you can follow as deeply as you like.  Slice it one way and it's Phantasy Star Online, slice it another way and it's Animal Crossing, slice it a third way and it's Cooking Mama.  Take the bits you like, and leave the rest on the side of the plate.  The game won't mind.

It doesn't really excite me in a "best game in all of forever" kind of way, but it's a very gentle, cozy game in a Professor Layton kind of way.  If you want a game that will give you just hours and hours of stuff to collect and craft, then you should try it.  But if you want an RPG that doesn't require a lot of dull grinding when you just want to get on with the story, then you should also try it.


And here's a neat article with a more in-depth analysis of the game's world, its economy, and some thoughts about designing a game for pacifists.
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