Fantasy Life: My Game of the Year 2014
2014 was a rough yeah for games. We saw masterpieces like the enjoyable Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker and soon-to-be cult classics like the terrifying Five Nights at Freddy's. Sadly, we were also made to bear witness to travesties like Sonic Boom, which managed to throw the entire future of its franchise into serious doubt.
But, as is usually the case, 2014 was also the home of many an underrated gem, games which unfortunately slipped below the radar of the general populace and ended up not really gaining the recognition they deserved. As such, when GameSkinny posted its first workshop prompt of the New Year, I knew exactly which title I wanted to discuss: one such overlooked triumph. Fantasy Life for the Nintendo 3DS easily takes the crown as my favourite game of 2014. Why, exactly? Hoo, boy. I'm gonna have fun with this.
Developed by Level-5, of Professor Layton fame, Fantasy Life has actually physically been in existence since 2012 as a Japan-only release, making the time between then and its 2014 localisation something of a precedent. Was it worth the wait? Let me put it this way: Fantasy Life is one of the best examples out there of why developers should take their time and not rush out a 'finished' product in time for the holidays, a trap many a licensed game has fallen prey to over the years.
Though the game touts itself as an RPG set in the fantasy world of Reveria - and one could certainly be forgiven for reaching that conclusion from playing it at face value - the title actually goes a lot deeper than that. Sure, you're still going to be adventuring across vast grassy plains, laying waste to the local wildlife in return for experience points in true RPG style, but when you're not invoking the wrath of Reverian PETA representatives, you'll be enjoying the finer, smaller things in life; little nuances like interior decorating, cooking, and even owning a pet.
There's a metric tonne of options for customising your character, from hairstyle to voice pitch.
Forget Nine Lives. Try Twelve.
See, the basic hook of the game is that there are 12 classes, or "Lives" (yes, it's pretentious, but it works) that you can choose upon starting your adventure. These essentially serve as your vocation in the world, and they cover a wide variety of bases: you have your basic gathering jobs, the Woodcutter, Angler, and Miner, which allow you to head out into the sprawling world and collect materials; the combat jobs, which task you with ridding Reveria of ne'er-do-wells, from which you have your pick of Paladin, Mercenary, Magician and Hunter; and finally, the crafting careers, which let you take the aforementioned materials and turn them into something useful: the Blacksmith, Carpenter, Tailor, Alchemist and Cook all fall into this category.
In fact, there's so much choice that at the outset things get a bit overwhelming, with the pressure of selecting a Life which will best suit you becoming rapidly apparent. However, Fantasy Life takes great pains to alleviate this stress; although you are prompted to choose one job at the beginning, once you get past the tutorial you can switch Lives on the fly by visiting one of Reveria's many Guild Offices, so if, for example, you're not satisfied with your initial decision to be a Cook, a quick drop-in to the office will turn you into, say, a Magician in seconds flat.
The guy who runs the Guild Offices is a jolly fellow.
The Lives aren't just aesthetic, either. There's ample incentive to try each one; for instance, while anyone from any walk of Life can wield a pickaxe, only a Miner can use a special ability which increases your performance when hacking away at ore, giving you an edge if you're after a certain, tricky-to-extract kind of mineral. Similarly, a Cook will obviously experience difficulties in slaying the mighty Napdragon, but a Mercenary will put paid to it with ease. On top of this, there are certain types of armour and weaponry that can only be equipped while in a specific Life (only a Magician can wield a powerful magic staff, for example), and so you're given many an opportunity to dip into the other careers.
Although it's plausibly possible to finish the game using only one Life, that's no fun.
Much of the appeal of Fantasy Life is seeing what can be accomplished by mixing up the different classes and figuring out what works best. You might use a Paladin to eliminate a monster guarding a cave, then a Miner to extract the precious materials from inside said cave, then return them to an Alchemist's workbench to concoct a powerful stat-boosting potion. Constantly switching between Lives is immensely satisfying and, on top of the fact that each Life ranks up and eventually begins to harbour benefits for using it as opposed to a different one, a great sense of accomplishment permeates as you witness, for instance, your Cook progress from a lowly dishwasher, only making a soup now and then, to the culinary legend of the kingdom.
Even the minigames you play in order to cook are pretty fun.
As if that wasn't enough encouragement to get out there and try all the Lives, Reveria itself is a vast, sprawling kingdom, fully explorable and brimming with life and detail. Little touches like grasshoppers frolicking in the grasslands, cats sleeping on the roofs in the towns, and a completely functional day/night system all serve to immerse you in this world (for reference, I've racked up 100 hours of playtime and still haven't explored every nook and cranny) and make it difficult to leave (by which I mean put your system down, but you get the idea).
The graphics are some of the most vibrant and colourful I've seen on the 3DS, ingeniously rendered and beautifully animated, and, for once, accompanied by a 3D effect that doesn't make your head feel like it's in a hydraulic press. That's always a plus. The framerate moves along at a silky smooth 30fps, never dropping even when multiple monsters arrive for you to dispense fisticuffs on, and generally exhibiting a wonderful performance, a rarity on the 3DS; even classics like Luigi's Mansion Dark Moon occasionally suffered from a bit of frame slippage. Not so here.
Just look at this map. All of this is open for you to explore.
The game is stuffed to the gills with things to do...
...boasting more content than your local branch of Contents-R-Us. Fantasy Life's quest system is essentially broken down into three areas, with each one offering a different kind of reward for completing quests within it; first up, each Life comes with its own list of missions generally tied to the nature of the job; a Woodcutter, for example, is tasked with chopping down a certain number of trees of a certain type, while a Hunter is likely to be asked to down 10 wild boars and bring home the bacon (literally). These tasks are assigned to you by your Master - you have one for each class (in a hilarious twist, the Master for the Magician Life is a cat) - and completing them earns you Stars, which rank up each Life. Again, the sense of accomplishment is immense, and ensures there's never a dull moment where you've nothing to do.
Doom Stones, Napdragons, and A Five-Year-Old King (Storyline)
Next up are Flutter's Requests. These are basically the story missions, and are really only there to dangle a carrot in front of you in the direction of the main plotline which, hey, maybe we should take a look at. It goes a bit like this: Reveria is suddenly hit by an onslaught of bizarre purple rocks falling from the sky and damaging buildings left, right and centre. Turns out these are Doom Stones, sent by the evil god Damon Helbourne (subtle!) to wreak havoc in the kingdom, and they're revealed to have the power to corrupt the minds of normally placid creatures. Sadly, the Napdragon, guardian of Reveria, and his reptillian cohorts wander a little too close to a Doom Stone and start laying waste to Reveria, so it's up to you, by appointment of the king, who looks suspiciously like a five-year-old, to save the day.
Solving Flutter's Requests will net you Bliss, which gives you cool benefits.
It's a servicable plot, and the twists are pretty predictable, but what the heck, it works, and you're not really playing a game like this for an intricate plot. Just sticking to the story will run you about 10 hours' worth of gametime, but if you invest in getting all the Lives up to the highest rank, exploring the lush environments, and getting your house(s) up to snuff, you'll be here for upwards of 100 hours; even more if you pick up the DLC, which adds a whole new island to the proceedings. That's some darn good value, right there.
Fantasy Life might just be one of the most fun to-do lists I've ever played.
Finally, there are the Requests. Catchy. These are basically sidequests given to you by NPCs which range from killing a certain number of enemies to bringing someone a specific item. There are literally hundreds of quests to do here, and everyone in Reveria is ridiculously needy - but in a good way - so you'll never be wandering aimlessly wondering what to do next. The menu system is intuitive, allowing both touch and button inputs, so you can always easily keep track of who you've still got to deliver 200 eggs to, for example. In recompense for appeasing the citizens of Reveria, you receive Dosh, currency which you can use in shops to buy new weaponry, armour, and, in a fun touch, furniture. Yes, you have properties to manage as well, and filling them with exquisite chairs and wallpaper a la Animal Crossing is pretty fun and provides a neat little distraction that brings out the interior decorator in you. Come on, you know it's in there. Somewhere.
You too can have a house that looks like this. Y'know, if you want one.
But what most seals the deal for this game's nomination for my favourite game of 2014 is the script.
The localisation team has put oodles of effort in here, on par with the people who do the translation for the Phoenix Wright games, and it really shows. The dialogue is genuinely funny, with several snappy one-liners that sometimes made me laugh out loud (and other times made me facepalm in cringeworthy resignation, but still) and characterization that makes you really develop an emotional bond with these people.
A particular standout is Flutter, your butterfly companion; she's spunky, feisty and knows how to lay the smackdown on people she doesn't like - plus, her backstory, which I won't spoil here, is extremely emotionally affecting. I'm not joking. This is coming from someone who didn't even bat an eyelid at Professor Layton and the Unwound Future's ending, so that's saying something. Flutter is leagues ahead of other anthropomorphic companions in videogames in that she's actually likeable, unlike some *coughKersti* *coughNavi*.
All of these elements ultimately come together to make a genuinely fulfilling, enchanting experience.
Some other titles came really close; Captain Toad's ingenious puzzling was dangerously near to taking the title; GTAV's re-release seemed something of an obvious, cliche choice. But, good games though they undoubtedly are, Fantasy Life is truly something special. Encompassing gorgeous graphics, a central hook which really works and ensures you're never bored, an intuitive interface, brilliant side distractions and hours upon hours of content, this is a title which I have absolutely no trouble reccommending, as well as one which takes the honour of being my favourite game of 2014, and deservedly so. Great job, Level-5. I salute you.