Granblue Fantasy: First Steps in Phantagrande

Last time, we looked at where Cygames’ mobile hit Granblue Fantasy came from, and how it’s become such a phenomenon.

Today, we’re going to look in more detail at the game itself: how it works, how it plays, its similarities and differences from other popular mobile games, and what newcomers can expect from its early hours.

Given that it’s effectively an MMO of sorts, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the game has become a surprisingly sprawling, complex and somewhat daunting affair after three years of active development. But that doesn’t mean it’s completely inaccessible — nor does it suffer from the common MMO problem of new players being too weak to be able to participate in anything.

Let’s take a closer look.

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In Granblue Fantasy, you take on the role of wannabe skyfarer and silent protagonist Gran (or his equally silent female counterpart Djeeta) and, in true JRPG tradition, are thrown directly into a Big Plot when you encounter a mysterious young girl named Lyria and her knight protector Katalina, who are apparently on the run from the obligatory Final Fantasy-style evil Empire.

It’s not long before Gran has the absolute shit kicked out of him by the Empire, as these things tend to go. Lyria promptly saves him by intertwining her life force with his, which has the convenient side-effect of allowing Gran to use Lyria’s ability to summon giant slobbering monsters (and pretty girls) from beyond space and time to blow away their enemies. From here, Gran, Lyria and Katalina begin an adventure to seek out the Isle of the Astrals — a legendary location somewhere beyond the floating islands of Phantagrande Skydom — and almost certainly give the Empire a bloody nose or two in the process.

This “summoning” system introduced from the outset forms one of three important core mechanics of Granblue Fantasy that, combined together, determine your party’s overall power level in battle — the other two being the characters you have in your party and the ten different weapons you can have equipped at one time. We’ll come back to how all this works in a moment.

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Granblue Fantasy’s core gameplay is split into a few different components, but the thing you’ll likely be doing most frequently in the early game is going out on quests. These, in turn, are split into several different sections: typically a visual novel-style introduction to the quest, a sequence representing a “journey” where you and your party defeat a series of “trash” enemies and acquire loot, then another short story sequence reflecting what happens when you get to your destination, and finally a sequence of one or more turn-based battles.

This latter aspect forms the meat of the game, as it’s where all the characters, weapons and summons you’ve acquired become relevant. Your party of up to four characters (plus two in the reserves who jump in if a frontline member becomes incapacitated) square off against a group of up to three enemies and engage in strict phase-based combat: first you get a turn where you can use as many cooldown-based skills as you want, summon something if it’s ready and finally unleash physical attacks, then the enemy gets to do the same. Enemy skills come at predictable times according to a series of gems that light up with each passing turn, so you can prioritise targets according to which is likely to attack you first.

Elemental affinities are extremely important in Granblue Fantasy, as hitting an enemy’s weak point results in considerably more damage. Conversely, hitting them with an element they are strong against results in less damage, so figuring out which enemies appear in which quest is helpful. Gran’s attack element is determined by the main weapon of the ten he has equipped, while other party members each have a fixed element. The established metagame heavily favours building parties that each focus on a single element rather than jacks-of-all-trades, though in the early hours you’ll tend to find yourself with a somewhat piecemeal lineup of characters, weapons and summons. Thankfully, a well-constructed party only becomes truly necessary — as opposed to just helpful — once you get much further into the game as a whole.

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One twist on the battle system comes when fighting bosses, which come in two variants: standard and raid-level. Standard bosses typically appear as part of the story at the end of a quest and are fought by your party alone, while raid bosses are standalone encounters where you can invite other players to participate in battle, with the best rewards going to those who make the biggest contribution to defeating these powerful opponents.

The two types of bosses have a common mechanic: the “Mode” bar, which replaces the standard monsters’ “charge” gems that indicate when they are going to use a special attack. The Mode bar builds up as you deal damage to the boss until it fills, at which point the boss enters Overdrive mode. In Overdrive, they deal more damage and can use special attacks, but the Mode bar gradually declines and is knocked down by damage — some characters even have skills specifically designed to knock down the Mode bar further rather than dealing direct damage. When the bar empties, the boss enters Break status, at which point their defenses are lower and they can no longer use their special attacks.

One of the nice things about Granblue Fantasy is that it gives you the opportunity to participate in raid battles right from the early hours of the story, whereas in other, similar games of this type (A-Lim’s Brave Frontier is a good example) raid content is exclusive to high-level players, making the early game a rather solitary experience. Since each player’s party effectively battles the boss completely separately, there’s no real way for low-level players to mess up mechanics for higher-level or more skilled players, and as long as you get at least one hit in on the boss before it’s defeated, you’ll get some rewards, even if your more experienced peers do most of the work.

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Progression in Granblue Fantasy is multi-faceted. Looking at things most broadly, you have an overall “rank” that allows you to increase the maximum capacity of your AP and EP resources, which are used to start quests and join other players’ raids respectively — and rather pleasingly, these can “overflow” over their maximum, allowing you to “stockpile” a huge amount in the early game and thus rarely run into situations where your play sessions become throttled. (Even better, the first time you play story or event quests, there is no AP cost whatsoever, so you can continue to progress even if you run out of resources.) Your rank also provides bonuses to Gran’s base HP and attack power stats, and is used to determine whether you can use the full stats of an equipped weapon or simply a considerably nerfed version. No equipment is completely level-locked, but using something below its “required” rank comes with quite a hit to its overall effectiveness.

Protagonist Gran then has a class, and a level for this class. Each class can level up to a maximum of 20, and unlocking more advanced classes generally requires you to have “mastered” two classes from a previous tier as well as expending resources or completing a particular quest. Classes bestow passive bonuses as well as providing access to skills, and each class has a particular specialism: attacking, defending, healing or “special”, which generally covers buffing and debuffing. Mastering a class also provides a permanent passive bonus to Gran, even if he switches, so it’s worth taking the time to level a variety of classes.

The other characters in your party each have a level too, the cap on which is determined by their rarity — rarer characters can reach higher levels. You can “uncap” each character several times to allow them to reach higher maximum power levels; doing so typically requires you to expend the in-game soft currency of Rupies as well as specific items looted from the weekly “Trial” quests.

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Then each weapon has a level too, determining the amount of bonus HP and attack power it bestows on the party as a whole. Unlike characters, who gain experience simply through being in a party for a quest, weapons can only be levelled up by fusing them with other items of equipment. Fusing weapons of the same type together can increase the chance of a “Great Success”, which provides bonus experience to the weapon being powered up, and with each successful fusion you gain elemental experience in the element of the weapon you’re working on, which confers even more bonus experience.

The final piece of the puzzle comes with the summons you can equip. Like weapons, you can equip several of these, with one being set as your “main”, and these are levelled up by fusing them with other, unneeded summons. Summons generally have a larger impact on your party’s HP than attack power, while weapons are the opposite; your main summon also has the added benefit of conferring a passive “aura” bonus on the whole party, allowing you to buff your strengths, cover your weaknesses or make use of special abilities such as auto-revive.

All these elements combine to produce your party’s overall power level. There are only two explicit numerical stats to concern yourself with — HP and attack power — which keeps things relatively simple to begin with. Where things get more complex — and interesting — is in the later game where you start focusing on collecting weapons with passive skills that boost your party’s favoured element by a percentage amount, and indeed filling out a complete weapon “grid” with suitable implements of death and dismemberment to maximise your damage output. Doing this generally requires a combination of drawing things using the game’s gacha (which can be played for free using crystals you earn by completing quests for the first time) and participating in events and raids for a chance at some quality loot.

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One of the reasons Granblue Fantasy has been so well received by its player base is that there is little to no obligation to spend money on the game in order to progress. Many of the highest rarity weapons can be acquired through events and raids — and indeed some of the most useful, effective weapons are most reliably acquired in this way rather than relying on random draws. This de-emphasises the gacha aspect of the game in favour of actually playing it — though as anyone who has played any MMO over the years will attest, when there’s one thing you really want to drop, count on it taking at least several hours before you see it. This is not a game you can play passively by any means!

If you find yourself enjoying the game, there is one package worth considering splurging on, though: known as “Start Dash” in the original Japanese version of the game and “Beginner’s Draw” in the English edition, this bundle may seem pricey at about $25, but it provides you with a 10-part premium draw (which provides the opportunity to collect SR and SSR-rarity weapons, characters and summons) as well as a ticket that lets you choose a specific character or summon from a list. In this way, if there’s a particular character you’re interested in — perhaps even one that got you into the game — you can acquire them without having to rely on random drop rates. The latter part of this deal is repeated every two months or so in the form of “Surprise Tickets”.

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The nice thing about the game’s monetisation is that it isn’t “pay to win” by any means. Weapons and characters aren’t particularly overpowered in the form you initially acquire them in, and will need levelling up in order to make them a useful addition to your team. In this way, even if you do find yourself wanting to toss a bit of money Cygames’ way, you’re never left feeling like you’ve somehow “cheated” for having done so. You’re simply paying to increase your available options or customise your experience — and, as we’ve previously said, if you’re staunchly against throwing money into free-to-play games, you absolutely can play the game without paying a penny — and without being put at a disadvantage for deciding to go this route.

Next time, we’ll take a look at how I’ve spent my first three weeks in the game, and what I’m aiming for next!

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