Written for Continue Play, recreated with permission.
A wise man once said that life is a result of all of the opportunities taken, chronicled over time. Every decision is an indulged opportunity that leads to another, leading to a life of achievements, lifestyle choices, and resulting in something vast, spiraling, and uniquely personal. Perhaps even intimate. The amount of crossroads, fractionally small decisions, and monumental snapshots that get packed into these decisions are numerous, and difficult to really know where and when they’ve come, even when they’ve passed.
As a result, games have never really managed to capture all of them in succinct ways. Games like The Sims series, Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing often hit many of the right notes, but they lack the full depth of nuance or the right amount of personality to feel natural. They’re good analogs for the concept, but they lack just the right amount of subtlety to truly develop their concept in full. That’s perhaps understandable, given that the genre often aims to appeal to the more casual, family-friendly side of gaming, but there’s certainly a market for something with a little more, well, depth.
To their credit, Level-5 and Nintendo come very close to producing something of considerable proximity to emulating life in Fantasy Life; but like the many games that have come before it, it isn’t a perfect effort. Somewhere between action-adventure and RPG, Fantasy Life puts the player in the role of a protagonist who’s just come of age, and is getting their Life (or profession) from the local Guild in town.
The narrative that follows is hopeful and heartfelt, and manages to build all the right feelings into the story beats. Unfortunately, the small character models and sense of scale the game implies ends up making the entire assembly feel more remote than it needs to. It just feels too distant to really settle in as heavily as the text and dramatics call for.
The text itself is charming, the characters are worth caring about, but it doesn’t culminate with any strong feelings or solid applications. Fantasy Life is a tale that has plenty of heart and hope, but lacks the gravity to bring down the house. The narrative isn’t invasive – far from it – but it lacks the soul to really bind the experience together.
What does endure is the structural mechanics of the game, which manage to build, combine, and flourish in the world that Fantasy Life establishes. The game world isn’t aggressively large, with a main narrative that opens the full world in perhaps between eight to ten hours; but the amount of content hidden in the wings is plentiful. Each Life will have a different expectation for a zone: the combat classes will be looking for certain enemies or bosses, the gathering classes will be looking for specific trees, ores, or fishing spots, and crafters will be exploring enemies for their drops. Or, for players who find themselves changing between classes, perhaps parts of all of the above.
For players just looking for victims, combat is surprisingly robust for how much has been packed into the game. With only 3 or 4 central combat classes, the amount of work that’s gone into the enemies is pretty impressive. The combat itself isn’t terribly complex, mostly hinging on enemy variety rather than foe complexity, and often manages to be equal parts rewarding and frustrating. The game would benefit from a little bit of combat variety, but within the limited structure, there’s still enough depth of weapon types and attacks to give a bit of variety to skirmishes.
Being an RPG of sorts, the combat is beholden to stats, which can be frustrating when areas don’t have a consistent difficulty curve. This modifies the longevity of the game by giving the combat classes more content to explore once they’ve completed the narrative, in the form of optional caves and dungeons, but it leaves the crafting and exploring classes to brave aggressively difficult enemies just to complete challenges in classes ill-suited for difficult combat.
Where the combat mechanics fail the more passive classes, though, it really shines in the crafting systems themselves. The micro-games that encompass fishing, mining, tailoring, blacksmithing, cooking, and so on are all largely competent and enjoyable, if simple, and worth spending time indulging in.
The varying quality levels of items and unlocked skills encourage taking extra time to get the little details right, rather than just mindlessly running through the systems in order to craft items with as little player-effort as possible, though Fantasy Life does include systems to allow for bulk crafting. Crafting higher-quality items raises their selling price, improves the base stats, and can have added benefits to equipment or recovery qualities.
Unfortunately, the gathering classes don’t seem immediately appealing at the beginning of the game. However, as the crafting recipes are learned and some of the challenges and items start to become requested by NPCs, the true benefit of having a passing familiarity with gathering becomes quickly understood. The ability to mine certain ores or gather rare materials for use in rare cooking recipes or high-level items, it becomes very tempting when customizing armors, weapons, and clothing for use higher stat player crafts and also higher level challenges for the professions.
Between the little changes in micro-games, scenery, and managing to stretch the mileage of every zone depending on what the player is looking for at that moment, Fantasy Life manages to pack a lot of content into a relatively small package. Doubly so when considering the little visual accompaniments that follow the game.
Little things like changing the character model with armor and clothing changes, customizing houses and furniture, and being able to dye hair, clothing, and furniture, and even simple character animations manages to squeeze little bits of charm into the game. Combined with a generally stellar soundtrack and deceptively clever sound design, it becomes a game that’s hard not to love.
Unfortunately, some of the late game material exists as a minor plot hook for the paid DLC, which seems to place some of the content in the game behind a paywall. Once actually in the Origin Island DLC, little things like furniture that can reset stats and DLC-only equipment makes the non-DLC content feel, as robust as it is, a little bit restrictive.
For a game with a full price tag, being able to see that content exists, yet not have access to it is frustrating, especially since the maps were already made and partially included in non-DLC challenges and the like.
These quibbles aside, Fantasy Life is a game that gets so close to getting things almost right. The interplay between systems is nearly seamless, the sheer amount of content, even well past the 5–hour mark, is easily worth the asking cost; and the ability for players to bounce jubilantly from Life to Life means that finding a new way to approach the game if the last isn’t working is not only plausible but, to a degree, encouraged. Fantasy Life is a game that knows its audience, and loves to give them as much as it can, all at once.
Nuanced, cute, charming, robust, playful, lovely, and uncompromisingly full of potential, Fantasy Life is a game that should be played, and manages to pack a great deal very gracefully into a handheld title. It’s just a shame that a few niggling flaws hold it back from true excellence.
Still, if you’re a fan of series like Animal Crossing and Harvest Moon, it’s well worth your consideration, and don’t be surprised if it ends up occupying the cartridge slot of your 3DS far more than you mean to.