Gacha Games Worth Your Time: Mobage’s Shining Lights
Mobile gaming’s growth and size isn’t a surprise. The first step to selling a product is finding an audience for it, and mobile has a huge audience. For a self-proclaimed gamer, the only problem with what has become the world’s most popular games-playing device is the games.
The perception of mobile gaming tends to revolve around how shallow so many of the titles are -- and in fairness, the most popular mobile gaming titles are the ones with the broadest appeal, with their depth and challenge often lacking as a result. The fact is that there are a number of surprisingly deep, thoughtfully crafted and complex titles for mobile: it’s just that playing them means embracing a number of unique, foreign and frankly opaque game mechanics popular in their country of release.
The one word that connects all the titles in this roundup is the “Gacha.” The capsule-machine isn’t as big in the West as it is in Japan, but ‘Gacha’ is just that same ‘insert resources, receive a random prize that’s never as good as the one you wanted,’ system in video-game form. Often meant to facilitate the paid component of F2P titles, the use of a gacha is a fairly standard convention.
Seen in games where party-building is a key component, gachas are often used as the main recruitment mechanic. Characters, instead of being unlocked through story progression, or directly through in-game currency, are ‘rolled’ for. While a set number of rolls are given away as a reward for playing, the standard approach is to allow players to pay for additional rolls.
For well-designed titles, this allows for better balance, while also providing tangible rewards for spending money. Since only a set number of characters can be used in a single encounter, the player is less likely to encounter ‘unwinnable’ scenarios where they might be forced to spend money to progress. On the other hand, an ‘unlucky’ player with common units, has plenty of incentive to try their luck again.
These games below stand out from the crowd. They're engaging, mechanically complex, attention demanding, addictive and sublimely enjoyable. They make a perfect first for someone eager to see what mobile can offer a seasoned gamer, or a new fix for a mobage veteran. They come fully recommended, and are available on both iOS and Android.
Publisher: Fuji&gumi Games
Phantom of the Kill is bad at first impressions. From its ludicrously shonen-esque promo-art, to the armor-bikini glad heroines in the game’s opening cutscene (a spectacular affair by noted animation studio Production I.G.) to the 15-minute long post installation download of game resources, the game does everything in its power to start prospective players off on the wrong foot.
A forgiving attitude is the best choice in this situation: players who enjoy the game’s polarizing aesthetic will find a robust tactical RPG. PotK has its roots firmly planted in the TRPG genre, with gameplay and complexity akin to Nintendo’s long standing handheld franchise, Fire Emblem.
Players familiar with Fire Emblem will notice the similarities right away. The game’s battle mechanics are a straight adaptation of Fire Emblem’s weapon triangle (Lances>Swords>Axes>Lances), pairing units on adjacent squares generates support bonuses, movement on a grid and all the familiar staples of the genre are right where they should be.
To PotK’s credit, none of these make the game seem like a clone or a derivative work. If anything, these familiar mechanics are well implemented and their inclusion justified, representing the best-practices of the genre. Unit classes are an important mechanic as well, with certain classes having access to different weapon types, movement abilities. PotK does have some interesting innovations, like the new gunner class: however, at the early stages of the game, these differences tend not to matter. There's an novel twist on the gacha formula as well; repeated rolls on the same type of gacha will have increased drop rates for rarer classes and characters.
Phantom of the Kill is a solid adaptation of the TRPG genre to the mobile platform. While the style and story might be a point of contention for some, the solid mechanics, and involving game-play make it an easy title to recommend to fans of the genre.
Publisher: GungHo Online Entertainment
Genre: Puzzle/RPG Hybrid
Influential, genre defining, and fun as heck, Puzzles & Dragons is one of the big names in the mobile game genre. The popularity of the property is difficult to understate: it’s spawned its own trading card game, an arcade machine and two different 3DS spinoff titles, including the Super Mario Bros edition. It’s even directly inspired the official Doctor Who mobile game, with various characters from the show taking the place of the Dragons.
In terms of gameplay, around 50% involves the ‘matching orbs of different colors’ seen in almost every hit mobile puzzle game of the past decade. P&D’s twist to the formula is to create an RPG component: the bottom half of your screen is the matching baubles, while the top is devoted to a 90’s era RPG battle screen.
A team of five (with an advertised pool of over 2000 characters to draw from), each associated with a different orb color form the linchpin of the battle system. As you build matches and combos of the various colors, you deal damage to the enemy above, with each colored unit doing more damage as orbs of their color are paired. In addition, units have a unique skill which can be activated after a certain number of turns have passed. These can be used to regain missing health, deal large amounts of damage to an enemy, or change the layout of the puzzle section.
While some units can be obtained as rewards from battle, these are most useful as sources of experience for more powerful units acquired elsewhere. All units have levels but they don’t gain experience through battle. Instead, to raise their stats, other monsters are fused, sacrificing them in the process. Units can rank up through what the game calls ‘Evolution’, although this requires using a specific combination of other unique units as fuel.
The gameplay is in the ‘easy to pick up, impossible to master,’ category. Players can accumulate tricks and techniques with the Puzzle half of the gameplay, but the bulk of the game’s skill is in effectively managing the Dragon half. Careful team selection is key, as is flexibility. The strategy in team composition is left to the player, but certain strategies prove beneficial for certain levels, encouraging constant planning. Continual updates from the developer and a shockingly deep late-game make Puzzles & Dragons a must-play, and the most likely candidate to leave players saying they’ll put it down, but just after they do this one last dungeon.
Other mobile games seek to emulate or evoke the feeling of other extant genres, but MISTWALKER’s Terra Battle manages to feel like a game entirely unto itself. While the game bills itself as an RPG – some familiar mechanics are involved – the gameplay is so uniquely designed and so deftly implemented that it requires some description.
The core of Terra Battle’s battles take place on a 5x8 grid, where friendly and enemy units alike occupy a single grid. Rather than moving pieces about a larger map, this 40-square grid is the entire map: battle occurs, not through a menu, but by strategically maneuvering your units, “striking from both sides in a pincer attack,” as the game says. Placing units on opposite sides of an enemy triggers an attack, and having units positioned just so can unlock chain attacks. The constant struggle to free entrapped units, to set up the optimal attack on a vulnerable enemy in this new shifting battlefield is shockingly intuitive and engrossing.
Character advancement comes from experience in battle, acquiring and selecting skills, and a job system (with a maximum of three pre-selected jobs per character). Team building is equally important, with weapon and elemental triangles playing a strong role in determining battle effectiveness.
A top-tier outing from some of JRPG’s most venerated developers, Terra Battle provides a glimpse into mobile gaming’s ‘Good Future.’ That it also happens to have one of the most deviously thought provoking battle-systems that technically replicates a turn based JRPG is a nice bonus. Other Tactical RPGs can only dream at the level of thought Terra Battle requires players to put into their positioning.
Honorable Mention: Granblue Fantasy
For those interested in other gacha-based mobage, and aren’t afraid to go the extra mile, Granblue Fantasy is the only place to go. Universally acclaimed, visually stunning, class-system featuring, English-translated, scored by the guy behind every Final Fantasy song you love, yes especially that one, Nobuo Uematsu, and “a shining example of JRPGs making the most of their new home on mobile devices,” Granblue still has no future as an official release in the west. Make no mistake, that's still a recommendation: it’s technically playable through your browser, and worth playing in any form.
As mobile games enter their adolescence, the gacha method provides an appealing way to manage game balance while keeping high-quality mobile titles free to play. Offering plenty of characters, hundreds of hours of content, and challenging gameplay, these gacha based games are some of the best mobile gaming has to offer. Try them out, tell a friend, and consider telling us below!
Gacha, is short for Gachapon, the Japanese term for those machines. The use of the term ‘gacha,’ as shorthand came from the mechanic’s repeated appearance in mobile games from that region of the globe. Asian-developed mobile games are called ‘mobage’ for similar reasons.
These games have a few mechanics that, while conventional in their home market, benefit from a short explanation.
Most of these games will have a stamina meter: it goes up with player level, is depleted by taking quests, and is restored over time, by (paid) items, or by leveling. The higher the quest/the rarer the reward, the greater the stamina cost.
It’s rare for games to only have a single type of gacha. Typically, they’ll have a combination of three main types.
- The gacha you’re expected to use. Rolling requires a resource given in small quantities for quest completion. The units in here are of mixed rarity, and the rates at which they dispense are fairly static.
- Event Gacha
- Tied to seasonal quests and ‘event’ mechanics, these typically use the same resources as the standard type. The difference is that a number of specialized units may be available. Higher drop rates for certain units found in the standard pool, variants of existing units with different skills, and in certain cases, units and items exclusive to that event.
- Friend Gacha
- Often tied to a social mechanic, these types of gacha take points earned by adding friends, using a friend’s guest units, or similar low-cost actions by the user. As a result, while rarer units may be available, the expectation is that this gacha is used to obtain common units, consumables, and power-up items.
Most mobage present the player with a set of levels or scenarios. To progress the story and unlock more areas and units, story quests form the bulk of the game’s content.
Event quests and daily quests are presented as additional options, providing an opportunity to obtain resources, experience or items that can be taken into the main quest. Event quests are added and removed on a regular schedule. Exclusive items and characters are sometimes rewards for finishing a certain number of a given type.