There comes a point where something becomes so popular that it’s impossible to ignore, even if your initial reaction to it is “I’m not sure I want to get involved with that.”
Such is the case with Granblue Fantasy, a free-to-play mobile game developed by Cygames and published on the popular Japanese Mobage platform.
Granblue Fantasy is an interesting case because not only is it still immensely popular on its home turf even three years after its original release, it’s also managed to pick up a significant English-speaking following, even without an official release on high-profile digital storefronts such as Apple’s App Store for iOS and Google Play for Android.
So why this game? What sets it apart from the myriad other free-to-play games on the market? Only one way to find out: let’s take an ongoing look at it from the perspective of a newcomer.
Please indulge me a moment while I provide some context to my perspective and preconceptions.
During the period between my time on the sadly defunct GamePro and Gamer Network’s US-based offshoot USgamer, I worked for an organisation called Inside Network, who provided a detailed stat tracking service for developers and publishers of mobile and social games as well as a number of websites that provided business-facing news and reviews about the latest trends in this particular sector.
This was at the height of the Facebook gaming boom: “social gaming”, as it was called, was big news and big business, and everyone, it seemed, wanted a piece of the pie. Unfortunately, the kind of people who were interested in making a quick buck off the back of the hottest new tech trend at the time were not, to put it politely, particularly good game designers, and as such the market became utterly saturated with titles attempting to imitate the initial success of popular titles like Zynga’s Farmville.
It was around this time that Japan was starting to ramp up its efforts in a similar field, but rather than tying their games to a social network, they instead opted to focus on mobile devices. This made a lot of sense: free-to-play social games were typically designed to be played in short spurts during periods of downtime rather than focused on for hours at a time, though those who did wish to engage with them for more than a few minutes at once always had the option to pay up for various benefits ranging from refilling their finite “energy” resource (which limited the amount you could play in one go) to getting shortcuts to obtaining powerful items and equipment.
One of the first Japanese mobile games I stumbled across during this period was an earlier title from Granblue Fantasy developer Cygames, known as Rage of Bahamut.
Rage of Bahamut was not an impressive game, especially when compared to many of the Western mobile games of the period. While Western developers were attempting to test the boundaries of what these portable devices were capable of in terms of graphical power and what players were willing to put up with in terms of touchscreen controls, Rage of Bahamut quietly sidled up as a completely HTML-based game that looked and behaved like a website from the late ’90s.
There was no sound, everything you did required an entire image-heavy page of HTML to load and render and gameplay was limited to randomly drawing (admittedly beautifully illustrated) cards of varying value and rarity then tapping on an “Advance” button, watching an experience bar rise and a stamina bar fall. Occasionally you’d have a “battle”, which consisted of the game comparing the total attack value of your cards against the defensive value of an opponent, with the winner being decided automatically with no input required from you.
As you progressed through the game, additional features became available, some of which involved indirectly and asynchronously interacting with other players, and Cygames continually supported the game with new content over its lifespan. But its core mechanics remained pretty simplistic and it never really embraced the capabilities of modern mobile devices to the fullest — presumably in an attempt to allow as wide a variety of players on as wide a variety of devices as possible to play.
On paper, it was pretty rubbish, then, and it certainly soured me personally on free-to-play mobile titles from Japan — but it somehow managed to become extremely popular both in Japan and overseas despite its numerous flaws. In fact, the English language version alone managed to survive from 2012 right through to early 2016, which is a very long time for this kind of game to keep on trucking, particularly in the West — and the game has since spawned two anime adaptations, so it was evidently doing something right to elicit that kind of popular cultural penetration.
Core to Rage of Bahamut’s appeal — and core to the appeal of the vast majority of Japanese mobile games that have come out since — is the idea of the “gacha”, a means of drawing new “things” to use in the main core of the game. The exact “things” you draw vary from game to game, but they usually involve characters, weapons, special abilities or some combination thereof, and are intended to provide the feeling of playing a collectible card game, complete with the aspect of simply enjoying the impressive artwork.
While these games often have a sense of structure and a narrative tying things together, the real appeal for most players is in amassing a collection of the rarest possible cards in order to make their party as powerful as possible, and consequently able to take on the game’s toughest challenges. Unlike physical collectible card games, however, there is no trading between players, so you’re entirely tied to the whims of the game and the odds it provides of drawing the rarer cards.
Most games of this type provide various means of drawing new cards. Some provide the opportunity to draw either for free or using a currency you can earn in the game, but these typically provide common, weak cards. Others allow you to acquire common cards as “loot” by playing the game. All tend to monetise by allowing you to expend a premium currency on guaranteeing yourself a card of at least “rare” or “three star” quality, possibly higher; the more generous titles allow you to earn this premium currency by progressing through the game as well as paying up, while others require that you spend real money to obtain it.
The latter case is becoming rather more rare these days; while these games can prove extremely profitable for their developers if they become successful, much of their income tends to come from a relatively small, dedicated group of players with deep pockets (often referred to less-than-affectionately in the West as “whales”), with the remainder preferring to play for free as much as possible.
So where does this leave Granblue Fantasy, in many ways a spiritual successor to Rage of Bahamut?
Well, it’s kind of interesting, really. At its core, it’s very similar in structure to its precursor: you proceed through a linear sequence of areas, expending energy to do so; you engage in battles in which success is largely determined by ensuring you have bigger numbers than your opponents; you draw new “cards” to power yourself up. And yet the whole thing becomes a significantly more satisfying experience with the simple addition of a bit more audio-visual polish and a significant chunk of genuine, honest to goodness “gameplay”.
That audio-visual polish is particularly noteworthy, especially for longstanding fans of popular Japanese role-playing franchises: Granblue Fantasy’s 2012 release saw the reunion of Final Fantasy series composer Nobuo Uematsu and art director Hideo Minaba for the first time since 2007’s Lost Odyssey on Xbox; the pair had previously worked together on Final Fantasy VI and IX for Super NES and PlayStation respectively.
It’s not just about pretty art and stirring music, however — though both of these are, it has to be said, rather spectacular in their own right. Granblue Fantasy also features a strong narrative aspect with full Japanese voice acting for its main story scenes, and partial voice acting for others. There’s also a strong cast of characters introduced right from the outset, and unlike many other games of this type that attempt to incorporate narrative into their overall structure, the characters involved actually participate in the story rather than acting as simple visual representations of mechanics.
All this helps give Granblue Fantasy a strong feeling of being a “proper” game rather than “just a mobile game”. While its HTML-based origins are still somewhat apparent in places — particularly with its frequent loading breaks — it looks, sounds and feels much more polished than many of its spiritual precursors, making it a much more satisfying experience to play as a result.
And, to add to that feeling of it being a “proper” game, Granblue Fantasy’s battles demand much more in the way of involvement from the player. Long gone are the days of Rage of Bahamut’s completely automated combat, thankfully; Granblue Fantasy instead adopts a turn-based system whereby the player and enemy parties take it in turns to make use of skills and unleash physical attacks on their opponents.
We’ll explore the details of the battle mechanics in a future installment, but suffice to say for now that the addition of these interactive battle scenes goes a long way towards making Granblue Fantasy a much more appealing game to play than earlier titles such as Rage of Bahamut. It’s definitely a strong step in the right direction, particularly with the heavy amount of customisation possible once you’ve built up a decent collection of cards.
Interestingly, despite its popularity both in Japan and overseas, Granblue Fantasy hasn’t seen an official Western release. Instead, Cygames acknowledged the significant proportion of the English-speaking userbase who had been playing the Japanese language version by simply adding an English language option to the Japanese incarnation of the game. In this way, those who had already been playing for some time would be able to keep their progress, while those who wanted to start from the beginning would be able to enjoy the story in full in a language they could understand.
The unfortunate side-effect of this is that it’s not quite as straightforward as it could be to get started with Granblue Fantasy, but if you want to check it out for yourself, you can do so on iOS by signing up for a Japanese iTunes account on the App Store and then searching for the game; Android users, meanwhile, can find the game reasonably simply by going via a service such as QooApp — you’ll need to enable downloads from non-trusted sources (or “sideloading”) to use this.
If you want to play on the Web, meanwhile, there’s an official Chrome extension here that makes life nice and easy for you.
Next time, we’ll look in more detail at how Granblue Fantasy’s core mechanics work, and what you can expect from your first few hours in the game.
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