Fantasian isn’t just charming; it’s the most approachable JRPG I’ve ever played

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Before Fantasian launched on Apple Arcade, most of the discussion centered on how it looked. There was a good reason for that. Mistwalker, the studio helmed by Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, pioneered a new technique that involved crafting more than 150 incredible, charming dioramas, which were then photographed to become the locations you explore in the game. Whether you’re venturing through a wind-swept desert, luxury cruise ship, or robot metropolis, every area you visit in Fantasian was handcrafted from real-world materials. It not only looks amazing, but it lends the game’s fantasy world a very particular vibe.

Fantasian is also just a great game. It’s not particularly original, hewing very closely to the Final Fantasy games that Sakaguchi built his career on. But it also takes those ideas and mechanics and changes them just enough to feel fresh, while also making some notable quality-of-life changes. Fantasian isn’t just an adorable handcrafted game from the creator of Final Fantasy; it’s the most approachable Japanese RPG I’ve ever played.

The premise is, admittedly, not very original. If you’re played a JRPG any time over the last two decades, it’ll probably feel familiar. You play as Leo, a hero who has lost his memory and quickly gets pulled into a quest for the fate of the world. It’s hard to talk too much about details of the story since, for most of the game, Leo doesn’t even know what’s going on. Early on, you’re mostly just following leads, as Leo goes pretty much anywhere he can in order to potentially learn more about who he is. You’ll explore mysterious and well-guarded vaults, visit gorgeous cities on the water, and eventually be transported to a mechanical realm ruled by robots. It’s a lengthy adventure, though what’s available now is actually only the first of two parts, with the second expected to release later this year.

The story itself is… fine. Fantasian certainly doesn’t live up to its spiritual predecessors in that regard. I never felt any real sense of urgency as I saved the world, and few of the main cast of characters are very memorable. It’s cute at times, and there are some interesting surprises and worldbuilding details to dig into. Mostly, it just gets the job done. Fantasian is much more about the vibe than the narrative. I loved poking around each and every location, seeing the buildings and landscape from different angles. I didn’t really care why I was doing it. The handmade diorama art style is reminiscent of the pre-rendered backgrounds from the PlayStation era, except with a much finer level of detail. An incredible soundtrack from frequent Sakaguchi collaborator Nobuo Uematsu only adds to the nostalgia. It’s a world you want to linger in.

Fantasian doesn’t just look and sound familiar; it also plays a lot like the classics it’s inspired by. That means random battles, turn-based combat, and a relatively straightforward character customization. The battles, in particular, do some interesting things. While there are familiar elements — like enemies with elemental weaknesses and bosses that change forms mid-fight — there are also some nice twists, like spells and weapons that you can aim to maximize your attack by hitting as many enemies as possible in one shot. It makes battles, particularly bosses, feel more strategic and less mindless. It’s really satisfying when you line things up just right.

Perhaps the best addition is the awkwardly named dimengeon — a portmanteau of dimension and dungeon — that lets you put off random battles for a short period. Essentially, when you turn the feature on, any monster you come across gets trapped in this device, and it can hold up to 30 of them at a time. Whenever you want — or whenever it’s full — you can then take on all of the trapped monsters in one giant brawl. It’s a great feature for when you just want to explore without fighting or when you’re in a rush to get to a save point.

There is a handful of other quality-of-life tweaks — plentiful save points, locations that are big but simple to navigate, touch and gamepad controls that work equally well, little need for grinding — that add up to an incredibly accessible take on the classic formula. Fantasian streamlines the genre, keeping the parts that work best, while updating the rest for modern tastes. There are a few small hiccups, like flat cutscenes and some jarring difficulty spikes toward the end. But at its best, Fantasian is everything Sakaguchi does best, just in a slightly smaller and more refined package.

Fantasian is available now on Apple Arcade.

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