Hironobu Sakaguchi still has some tricks up his sleeve, and his team at Mistwalker is going back to their Final Fantasy roots for Fantasian.
Hironobu Sakaguchi told me that three years ago, he had the chance to replay Final Fantasy VI with some of his peers who worked on the game with him. He was the lead producer on that 27-year-old classic, which is often regarded as the best entry in the storied series. "It really brought me back and reminded me why I love the RPG genre so much," he said, thus, inspiring his latest project, Fantasian.
It's been almost two decades since Sakaguchi had been involved with Final Fantasy, but as the creator of the illustrious franchise, he's still trying to capture the spirit. "I went back to my roots into the pixel art era of RPGs and paid a lot of attention to that nostalgia element in the game's overall construction," Sakaguchi said when I asked him about how the past work of his development studio Mistwalker influenced Fantasian. However, he and the team aren't simply resting on the laurels and relying on our love of old-school RPGs.
When Fantasian was first revealed during the Apple Arcade premiere in March 2019, Sakaguchi was shown working with handmade dioramas--this is how in-game environments are made for Fantasian. The game boasts over 150 dioramas used for scenes, backdrops, interiors, and overworlds to explore, and even the objects and props in these environments were physically created.
This is a unique method of constructing a game world, and I asked Sakaguchi how it affects the development process. "Once you commit to a design, there really isn't a lot of leeway in terms of changes," he said. "You might want to add a road here, maybe connect these two areas--that really isn't possible. So in the concepting phase, it's very important to have a clear vision of what it is you're trying to build and create as the environment."
As intimidating as that might sound, Sakaguchi also said working with dioramas was key for the vision of Fantasian. "When you construct these dioramas, seeing the actual objects in person can almost inspire and inform new gameplay or new elements in that, you see how a house is constructed," he explained. He continued with examples of how he can set up in-game scenarios, concluding, "Because the object is present, it gives you a different perspective on how the characters might be able to interact with the environment, which was kind of fresh."
Fantasian might draw you in with its elaborate diorama sets and throwback sensibilities, but Mistwalker is trying some new things gameplay-wise as well. What stuck out most to me was the Dimengeon system, which seems to solve the pesky problem of frequent random encounters. Essentially, the Dimengeon system lets you stack several instances of random encounters in your back pocket as you explore hostile areas, then initiate them all at once to take out all those enemies in one longer battle.
Although Fantasian uses a turn-based combat system, there are some active elements to battles. Some character abilities require you to aim spells in lines or curves to hit multiple enemies effectively, while some have area-of-effect properties. Sakaguchi also mentioned that boss battles will emphasize strategy, saying, "Even if the player's characters might not be at the so-called recommended level, if they have a lot of cunning and items and use skills properly, then they can still defeat the boss."
With world design and gameplay innovations, Fantasian seems to have a lot going for it. But a major reason why we hold some classic RPGs in high regard is for their storytelling. Fantasian has a familiar setup--the protagonist, Leo (who looks straight out of Nier), is in search of his father in their world governed by machines. He loses his memory after causing an explosion at a magic-tech (sounds awfully familiar!) and meets Kina, the girl in his one remaining memory. They embark on a multidimensional journey, jumping between worlds of chaos and order, and picking up several companions along the way.
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Sakaguchi explained the hooks of Fantasian's story a bit more. "Because each character brought into the story has their own history, their own kind of encounters, and then departures from each other, this tension creates a unique feel and experience," he said. He further explained that the game is made up of two parts or phases. The first of these is heavily driven by narrative, following storylines from different characters' perspectives. The second part is said to bring the team together and give players more freedom to take on quests and choose how they want to progress.
If Fantasian sounds like a traditional RPG, that's because it is. To address the elephant in the room, there's a certain connotation that an RPG on a mobile platform carries. Even though it's a mobile game exclusive to Apple platforms, titles curated for Apple Arcade have a more conventional design philosophy.
"First we took an approach quite similar to how we might set up the development team for a console game," Sakaguchi said in response to overcoming the perception of a mobile game. He continued, "Diorama aside, we used a lot of the same methods and the same kind of approach in developing the world. The feel and the experience will be much closer to something you would expect to find on console in terms of the immersion and interaction."
And one of the important aspects that's hoping to drive that traditional Final Fantasy-like experience is the work of long-time composer Nobuo Uematsu. He's scored many iconic soundtracks that Final Fantasy fans remember so fondly alongside the great gameplay experiences through the years--and he has composed 60 fully-orchestrated songs for Fantasian.
"Me and Uematsu-san being the age that we are, I think we're kind of closer to the latter chapters of our game development careers. We've been talking quite a bit," Sakaguchi prefaced. "And I don't mean this to say Uematsu-san is going to quit composing music by any stretch of the imagination--but whether he takes on another entire game, he said, this might be the last time he composes an entire game on his own. I think because of that, he did pour a lot of his heart and soul into this."
Uematsu had been composing Mistwalker's games since the developer's inception, and occasionally returns to Final Fantasy every now and then. But Sakaguchi asserts that Uematsu is still trying new things with his music. "There's definitely going to be some recognizable Uematsu melodies, but there's a lot of experimentation," Sakaguchi mentioned. "Early on in the music composition process, he and I talked about implementing some disharmonies and scales that [differ] from the standard C scale, etc. It branches off from that as well as integrating the sound of some more ethnic instruments, which brings another flavor to it altogether."
Fantasian seems to represent the old and new, from the gameplay and story concepts to the world design and music. Even late in his career, Sakaguchi still wants to capture that JRPG magic he once pioneered and understands that he and his team can still be inventive in the process. "Like the Final Fantasies of old, I always wanted to have this kind of spirit of innovation, which would kind of push the boundaries a little bit in terms of the genre," he said.
As you can gather from his sentiments, Sakaguchi still has a lot of love for the franchise he created. So, I asked how he feels looking at the franchise today. He reminisced about one of his last official Square-related projects, recalling Final Fantasy XI and the conversations of what to call it, how to handle the first MMORPG in the series, and his insistence on making it a numbered entry. And he concluded, "[Naoki] Yoshida working on Final Fantasy XIV has done some amazing things. And even [Yoshinori] Kitase, who is working on Final Fantasy VII Remake. They really pushed the boundaries in terms of visual expression and fidelity as a form of storytelling. I see everyone just working really, really hard on this franchise and it really just makes me very happy to see that."
It likely won't be long until we get to see how this project from Sakaguchi and Mistwalker comes together. Although there's currently no definitive release date, Fantasian is said to be coming soon--and it will launch on Apple Arcade for iOS, Apple TV, and Mac devices.
Quotes used in this article were translated live by a third party on a video call, which were edited for readability and clarity.