Japanese mobile-social gacha-based RPGs — or “mobages” as they’re colloquially known today, after the social network many of them are hosted on — were originally described when they first appeared as “card battle” games.
Looking at Cygames’ previous title Rage of Bahamut, it’s easy to understand why. Everything about the game had the feel of a collectible card game about it, from the simplistic battle system (which primarily consisted of ensuring your numbers were bigger than the enemy’s) to the fact that the main incentive to collect all the available units (through blind draws) was to see the beautiful artwork. About the only thing missing was the ability to actually trade “cards” with other players.
In recent years, while the basic structure of these games has remained similar — draw cards, level them up, upgrade them to higher rarity versions, challenge more and more difficult content — there’s been a noticeable shift away from the “card game” feel in favour of something a lot more interesting. And Granblue Fantasy is a particularly good example of this evolution.
Pretty art is a good incentive to keep players interested in a game involving collection, of course — particularly if you involve a variety of guest artists, as Rage of Bahamut did throughout its lifetime — but if successful console and handheld franchises such as Senran Kagura, Neptunia and their ilk have taught us anything, it’s that strong characters are a particularly powerful way to keep people invested in the long term, even across multiple games.
So that’s the principle that Granblue Fantasy starts from. Not only does it have absolutely beautiful art from Final Fantasy veteran Hideo Minaba, but each and every character is explored as a person as well as a collection of stats and abilities. This, in turn, encourages the player to develop a strong sense of attachment with their collection of characters as well as satisfying those who enjoy playing games for the narrative.
Granblue Fantasy explores its characters in multiple ways. The core cast of the game is introduced through the linear main narrative, which provides the player with free “SR”-rank characters at various important moments, usually after completing their introductory arc. The player character Gran (or his female counterpart Djeeta), who is a silent participant in the narrative but not the main protagonist, is brought in to the various events by characters addressing them directly. In some cases, characters such as the constantly present Lyria — arguably the real protagonist — speak on behalf of Gran or Djeeta, while at others the player has visual novel-style options to deliver a response of their choice. These responses don’t have an impact on the overall plot, but allow for minor variations in scenes.
Over the course of the main narrative, the cast travels to various islands and meets a variety of characters, some of whom end up becoming party members while others become antagonists. (In some cases, they can become both, though more on that later.) Each island tends to be its own self-contained episode in the overall story, which is in turn split into individual chapters, and subsequently split further into a four-part main quest and one or more sidequests. The main quest advances the overall narrative, while the sidequests are self-contained, single-part “short stories” that tend to focus on daily life in the region for the core cast members, particularly Gran/Djeeta, Lyria and resident “mascot” character Vyrn.
So throughout Granblue Fantasy’s main story, we get a decent sense of context to the world and the characters’ place in it, as well as the growth of the core cast as they take on increasingly difficult challenges. But that’s not the only way that the game explores its characters — particularly those who aren’t directly involved in the central narrative.
At regular points in real time, the game runs special events for a limited duration, which often provide the opportunity to acquire one or more unique characters that cannot be obtained in any other way. At the time of writing, the most recent event was Cinderella Fantasy: Piña Hazard, which featured characters from the popular Japanese anime and game series Idolmaster. This allowed the player to recruit one character through building up their “loyalty” by participating in battles with them, another to be acquired via loot tokens and a selection of further playable characters available as a reward for completing special puzzle-like battles that required specific strategies to complete rather than brute force.
Events of this type typically have a story running through them; in the case of Piña Hazard this was delivered through a combination of a short, linear sequence of quests followed by daily events that advanced the overall narrative. Others might require more active input from the player to proceed; a previous event, for example, required participation in battles to gather ingredients, then the player to make choices in a story scene to decide what type of food they wanted to make for a fussy eater based on her cryptic clues. There’s a lot of variety in these events, and they typically highlight characters who perhaps only put in a brief, relatively minor appearance in the main story — or, in the case of Piña Hazard, characters who aren’t in the main story at all due to the fact they come from another franchise altogether!
Any time you acquire a new character in Granblue Fantasy, whether it’s through an event or by drawing a “character weapon” in the gacha, you unlock something the game calls a “Fate Episode”. These come in two parts: firstly, a single-part story-only episode that introduces the character and the narrative context in which they meet the rest of the party and, once the character has been levelled up sufficiently (or, in some cases, sufficient progress through the main scenario has been made) a second, multiple-part episode with battles that allows them to unlock a new ability.
One interesting thing about Granblue Fantasy is that the gacha contains characters who are presented as antagonists in the early hours of the game. A good example from my personal experience is a character called Sturm, who is a regular thorn in the party’s side in the early hours of the main scenario. I drew Sturm as a playable character in my first attempt at the gacha despite the fact that, at that point in the story, he was still technically a “villain”.
The game handles the sort of continuity errors this might create by preventing you from using characters that would cause narrative issues in main scenario battles, but allowing you to freely use them in other content such as raid battles and events. You’re also locked out of seeing Fate Episodes for characters such as Sturm until you’ve reached a particular point in the main scenario; in other words, in mechanical terms, while you have access to Sturm and his abilities for challenging, non-story or event content, in narrative terms he’s not really “there” in the party until events in the story dictate that it would make sense for him to show up and cooperate.
Fate Episodes in general allow us to learn a great deal more about each and every character in Granblue Fantasy, and, while they’re entirely optional, the game rewards players generously for engaging with the extensive cast in this way. The introductory episodes provide Crystals as a reward, which can be used to draw rare weapons, summons and characters in the gacha, while the second multi-part episodes allow the characters to become more powerful or increase their utility with additional skills.
More than anything, the way characters are handled throughout Granblue Fantasy makes it abundantly clear that each and every member of the increasingly sprawling extended cast has been thoroughly designed not just as a piece of artwork, not just as a collection of stats and abilities, but as an interesting person that you might want to find out more about — or even build a party around just because you like them, rather than them being “good” in mechanical terms.
Choose your Granblue waifu or husubando carefully, though; you’re going to be spending a lot of time in their company!
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