Thursday, April 2, 2015

Final Fantasy Record Keeper (DeNA, Square Enix, 2015)

(Updated on September 12, 2016)

About a year and a half on since I summed up Final Fantasy Record Keeper as “a good diversion for about a weekend,” I have logged more time in this game than in any other over the same span. As such, I thought it fair to revise my assessment.

The basic premise and mechanics remain much the same. Each numbered Final Fantasy game is featured as a realm in Record Keeper, and each realm offers “dungeons” reenacting sections from the original games. These dungeons consist typically of three-to-four stages of consecutive battles against basic enemies, usually finishing with a boss encounter at the end of the final stage. There is no overworld, no exploring, and not a lot of story.

What has changed is the breadth of content, as DeNA continues to add new dungeons at a steady rate. If you were to begin playing Final Fantasy Record Keeper today, there would be enough content to occupy you for probably a few months before you would be all caught up. Currently in the global release, no realm has yet been covered in full (although most are close, as of this writing). Sequel and spin-off titles, such as Final Fantasy X-2 and Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, have also proven fair game for inclusion, and even Final Fantasy Tactics has been featured, so there is potentially enough material to mine from to extend Record Keeper’s life another year at least. The impending release of Final Fantasy XV should also help.

Warriors of Light, Dark, and Everything in Between

The most appealing aspect of Final Fantasy Record Keeper is definitely the large quantity of playable characters you can unlock to rotate into your five-person party. Nearly every significant party member from a numbered non-MMO Final Fantasy is currently available, and even some villains and supporting characters have been enlisted into the Record Keeper army.

Considering it’s a free-to-play game, Final Fantasy Record Keeper is extraordinarily generous in how it distributes these unlockables. Characters are not walled behind moneyed barriers or any ridiculous gacha lottery; all of them can be acquired just by completing dungeons. These are not even the hard dungeons; the characters—that is, the most desirable spoils in the game—are the easiest things to acquire. As someone who has been playing since near the beginning, I now have well over 100 party members, including marquee characters of the PlayStation era, classic heroes from the 16-bit generation, and some really cool deep cuts.

They’re not just trophies. The developers have included an impressive amount of detail in adapting the characters to fit Record Keeper’s visuals and mechanics. For characters from the PlayStation era and on, part of the fun is in seeing these originally polygonal heroes rendered as charming 16-bit sprites. It’s even more exciting, however, to see DeNA and Square Enix try to faithfully represent each character’s individual strengths and skills while keeping everyone balanced within Record Keeper’s gameplay. The game incorporates abilities from all of the represented titles and adapts them into an Active Time Battle system based on that of the 16-bit installments, but it doesn’t play exactly like any of them, which means the developers have to take certain liberties in order to fit existing characters into new mechanics.

Take Celes from Final Fantasy VI, for example. The designers must have felt that her signature Runic ability would be a little too juiced as a normal command, since it completely shuts down many enemy spellcasters. Instead, in homage to her job class of Rune Knight—a sturdy, sword-wielding mage—they gave her the ability to use the Spellblade/Mystic Knight’s elemental sword attacks. These are techniques that didn’t even exist in Final Fantasy VI! It’s not strictly faithful to her original form, but her Record Keeper incarnation is an interesting interpretation and one of this game’s more awesome characters.

Gacha: A More Insidious Monster-in-a-Box

Next to the characters themselves, ”5-star” weapons and armors are the most enticing collectibles in the game. The few weapons and armors you can acquire through gameplay are mostly generic items with names like “Knife” and “Leather Armor.” Almost any weapon or armor with even the slightest bit of name recognition is elevated in Record Keeper to storied 5-star status. This includes weapons such as the Buster Sword and Hardedge, both originally among the weakest swords in Final Fantasy VII.

5-star relics are extremely powerful, especially those that have been additionally flagged as “unique.” A unique relic, when equipped by the specific character with whom the item is most closely associated, will bestow that user with a signature Soul Break technique (this game’s equivalent of Limit Breaks, Trance, Overdrive, etc.). These Soul Breaks include powerful attacks hitting for 9999 damage or more, party-wide healing spells, potent party-wide multi-buffs (e.g. both Protect and Haste on the entire party), and a few singular abilities that are mechanics unto themselves (e.g. Celes’s Runic). Unique 5-stars are so positively game-changing that, upon acquiring your first one, your entire strategy becomes likely to revolve around it, at least until you get an even better one.

5-star weapons and armors can only be acquired by chance via the Relic Draw gacha system, and this is where the game’s freemium scheme comes into play. Although every player gets one free draw per day, these “common” draws are not likely to yield even a 2-star item more than once a month. For any real shot at pulling anything better than a 3-star, you have to buy into the rare draws, which requires using either actual money ($2.99 per draw) or Mythril, the game’s virtual currency (with a conversion rate of roughly 5 Mythril = $3). Awarded for completing various tasks, Mythril is not exactly finite, but DeNA controls the supply; you cannot farm it.

Even with the enhanced odds offered in the rare draws, your chance of pulling a 5-star is probably only about 10 percent (there’s a distressing lack of transparency about the exact odds). And even if you do get one, it probably won’t be the specific one you were hoping for. Most purely free players, such as myself, will be glad for any 5-star, but whales with their hearts set on a specific favorite character’s item, such as Sephiroth’s One-Winged Angel katana, can potentially blow through hundreds of dollars before pulling it.

Like any gacha, the game is not above cruelly exploiting those with gambling addictions. That’s really the basis of its business model and a discussion beyond the scope of this post. I will say that I have not spent a single penny on this game, yet, over the year and a half I’ve been playing, I’ve managed to collect a couple dozen good 5-star relics just through spending Mythril. Luck plays a part, no doubt, but provided you have the self-control to resist spending all your money chasing shiny virtual weapons, Final Fantasy Record Keeper is much fairer than any other gacha I’ve encountered. Remember also that 5-star relics, while helpful, are not necessary to win any but the most difficult of optional battles.

A Game for Those Who Fight

As a numbers game, Final Fantasy Record Keeper is every bit as robust as a traditional Final Fantasy. Characters are rated across seven statistical attributes. There are seventeen different ability schools and counting, each providing access to diverse sets of magical or physical techniques divided into six ranks within each school. There are over fifteen weapon types and seven armor types. Each character can also equip an accessory and a passive skill. With minor exceptions, characters’ equipment and ability proficiency levels are set in stone, but you still have a ton of options in how you organize your team and outfit each party member.

With all the experience and gear I’ve accumulated, at this point I can auto-battle through most fights without much thought. The exceptions are the challenge battles that cap off the weekly limited-time events. The hardest of these are the hardest battles I’ve personally fought in any Final Fantasy game. They require serious preparation and planning because they cannot be brute-forced through. These are bosses that are so fast that you need Haste just to keep up. They have so much defense and HP that they can outlast all your ability uses. And they get stronger and more aggressive as they near death, which means they’re at their toughest right when you are at your most spent.

I’ll never forget my victory over the Archaeosaur (T-Rexaur from Final Fantasy VIII) in one of the earlier events. Archaeosaur was a beast that could KO any of my party members in two hits or less, and it had attacks that could target the entire party, meaning it could potentially wipe me out in a mere two turns. Although weak to ice, it would auto-counter any black magic, so nuking it would only expedite my own demise. My narrow path to victory lay through exploiting its many status vulnerabilities. I had to paralyze, blind, sleep, and poison it. The first three were to keep it from killing me, while the poison accounted for most of the damage I dealt, as it slowly ticked the dino’s health to zero. Keep in mind, this boss was also preceded by four stages of very difficult normal enemies that I could only get through by exploiting the janky “Retaliate meta” (a tactic that seemed an awful lot like cheating, except that it was described on the official strategy site!).

The best fights always require a level of ingenuity that I never had occasion to exercise in any of the core Final Fantasy games I played (which includes all numbered installments from I to X). I’ll mention again, however, that, although challenging, even the hardest fights are doable without spending any money—something that I don’t feel is true of most gacha-based games. I’ve managed to clear all content, save for one notoriously unfair event dungeon (the original Parade Float (Elite)), and I’ve achieved mastery rank on all but two other battles (Bahamut SIN (Ultimate) and Kuja (Ultimate +)).

Of course, if you're not interested in taking on these optional challenges, you could instead just have fun toying around with cool or funny team concepts. You can finally assemble the Tetsuya Nomura dream team of Cloud, Squall, Tidus, Yuna, and Lightning. Or how about a five-dragoon party, with Ricard, Kain, Cid (FFVII), Freya, and Kimahri all taking to the skies? My new favorite is the “helmeted villains” team, consisting of Garland, Golbez, Exdeath, and Gabranth. (No fifth member for that team yet, alas. I think there are a few good candidates from Final Fantasy XIV, but they’re not in Record Keeper as of this writing.)

Remembering When Final Fantasy Mattered

Final Fantasy Record Keeper does provide a framing narrative to tie together the dungeoning across different realms, but this is barely developed. The larger part of the exposition consists of text summaries that briefly recap plot progressions between boss fights from the original games.

As someone who dropped the series after Final Fantasy X, I was intrigued at the prospect of being able to experience the more recent stories through abridged “demakes” via Record Keeper. But a few looks at the plot summaries for Final Fantasy XIII and XIV quickly had me reaching for the Excedrin.

I don’t mean that as a knock on those later titles, whose plots I still don’t feel qualified to comment on. Record Keeper’s summaries even for the games I’ve played and adored are somehow both dull and hard to follow, missing far too many details and any of the storytelling craft the series was once known for. Final Fantasy Record Keeper is not built to do justice to the opera from Final Fantasy VI, the ballroom dance from Final Fantasy VIII, the lake scene from Final Fantasy X, or whatever other cutscene might be your personal favorite. But it does recreate almost every boss fight from every numbered Final Fantasy, which should give veteran fans plenty enough to reminisce about.

Because I played Final Fantasy IV and know the game well, I don't really need Record Keeper to explain to me who Rubicante was. When that towering boss sprite takes the field and begins by respectfully addressing an enraged Edge (if he's in the party), suddenly I remember everything as vividly as though it were yesterday—a testament to the original game's captivating power, as well as to Final Fantasy Record Keeper's painstaking attention to detail in faithfully recreating these boss fights.

DeNA and Square Enix certainly did their homework, making sure to include specific lines of in-battle dialogue from the original games (if not perhaps the specific translations you grew up with), the correct battle themes and fanfares (e.g. "Not Alone" playing unbroken across a key series of battles from Final Fantasy IX), and as many battle conditions and mechanics as could reasonably be preserved (use Fire on Rubicante, and he'll return the favor by resurrecting any of your fallen party members!).

There's no denying that Final Fantasy Record Keeper leans heavily on nostalgia—that life support of the franchise through the last several years of Final Fantasy XV delays. You'll get a lot more out of its little touches if you played the original games. I still find many of the Final Fantasy XIII boss fights exhilarating, though, despite never having any idea what the characters are going on about. However well or poorly the series has aged, the Active Time Battle engine remains, frankly, leagues ahead of every other mobile free-to-play game I've encountered.

If you've NEVER been a fan of Final Fantasy, then Record Keeper may not have much to hold your interest. But as character collecting games on mobile go, Final Fantasy Record Keeper is without peer. No other game in this genre offers so large an assortment of cool characters. No other is so generous as to make every one of these characters easily obtainable at zero cost. And no other possesses anywhere near its depth of mechanics once past the collecting. No other I've tried has been worth my time, frankly, but I don't regret any of the countless hours I've now sunk into Final Fantasy Record Keeper.

* * *

(Below, my original, outdated post from April 2, 2015 is kept for reference.)

DeNA's free-to-play mobile game Final Fantasy Record Keeper is a surprising good bit of fanservice. The premise is that the worlds and stories of the numbered Final Fantasy games exist as enchanted paintings, which the player, as some manner of royal record keeper, has been tasked with protecting against an unknown darkness seeking to erase them. The only way to do this is to dive into the paintings and basically live out the stories within.

For longtime fans of the series, this really is like walking through a museum of past adventures. Each game gets its own gallery, where players can relive the story in condensed form. Plot is doled out one dungeon at a time, in the form of just a screenshot from the original game, accompanied by a single-screen text summary. That aspect of the presentation is not likely to draw anyone not already deeply familiar with these stories. But fans should appreciate the trip down memory lane, complete with vintage 16-bit sprites. Not all of the graphics are taken directly from previous games; one of the best parts of Final Fantasy Record Keeper is seeing characters (and monsters) of the PlayStation era newly done in the retro style and fitting in charmingly with the SNES sprites. For better or worse, I don't think any of the 8-bit sprites are in there, and I'm personally a tad annoyed that the gallery for Final Fantasy IV features screenshots of the polygonal remake, rather than the SNES original. But the music is sure to fill any fan with nostalgia. It's all taken from previous games, and, as much as we may have heard some of these tracks almost too many times over the decades, Final Fantasy Record Keeper does contain a large enough selection of enduring classics, so that the sound doesn't get repetitive while you're playing. Indeed, follow up a Final Fantasy IV chapter with an episode out of Final Fantasy VII (as can happen in this game), and one comes to newly appreciate just how extensive was composer Nobuo Uematsu's oeuvre over the 15+ years that he spent on this series.

Now, as a game, Final Fantasy Record Keeper isn't so much the stuff of legend, but it can be fun for a while. The combat is a simplistic take on the Active Time Battle system, where you'll mostly be tapping "Attack" over and over again. You can unlock characters from the original games to add to your party, and this really is the best part of Final Fantasy Record Keeper—collecting all your favorites and putting together a dream team. (I found a five-man party consisting of Cloud, Kain, Wakka, White Mage, and record keeper Tyro to be most effective.) The game does a good job of making the characters feel distinct in their stats, abilities, and equipment. All the equipment is also taken from previous games. And the game cleverly encourages players to rotate party members in and out, because characters (and equipment) receive huge bonuses while in their own realms.

It can be a good diversion for about a weekend, which is fair for the starting price. But it rapidly becomes more grueling after that. Each dungeon consists of a few rounds of regular enemies, followed by a boss. The boss battles are probably the only legitimately exciting part of the gameplay, as many of them require a bit of care (remember to watch out for Antlion's counterattacks!). But they also seem to grow exponentially more difficult after about the fifteenth dungeon or so. And it's especially annoying that the regular enemies that precede them, fairly consistently pushovers throughout my experience, are never any indication of the difficulty of the level boss.

Since new equipment is rare—the only way to get anything good is usually randomly through the daily drawing—your only real recourse is to level-grind. Even if you were down for the tedium, however, this is where Final Fantasy Record Keeper's freemium aspects kick in and impede your attempts to just grind away. The player's ability to battle is limited by their "Stamina." It costs Stamina points even to enter any dungeon, and, once you've exhausted them, your only options are to either wait for them to recharge (at a rate of 1 point per 3 minutes), or spend real-world money to restore them instantly. As you progress through the game, later dungeons require increasingly greater amounts of Stamina to enter and complete, so there's gradually less and less for you to do, unless you're willing to pay up. Money is also used for other things, such as healing mid-dungeon, or getting more tickets for the daily drawing. There is a free alternative to money that can do the same things, Mythril, which can be earned in-game, but there is a finite amount of Mythril to be gotten.

I got bored of the game after about two days with it, not only because of the tedium, but because it just stopped incentivizing me after a while. It was exciting when I was unlocking new realms and especially new characters from the first three worlds—VII, X, and IV—but then I opened up the galleries for V and VI, and neither had any name characters for me to unlock. I don't think I've even come across a single piece of equipment from VI. Maybe they're holding these things back for now, saving them for special events, which are the online aspect. Right now, for example, there is a Final Fantasy VII event that runs until April 11, 2015—a lengthy dungeon, where you can unlock Tifa and Sephiroth to add to your party. Like the rest of the game, this event dungeon becomes quickly more difficult and costlier to your Stamina with each successive floor. And, even though the deadline, as of my writing, is more than a week away, this truly is a multiple-day undertaking. I think mathematically, if you can't manage to keep a certain pace, at some point you just won't be able to keep recharging your Stamina quickly enough to get through the whole thing without paying. What happens when the deadline passes? Will you miss your chance to unlock Tifa and Sephiroth? I have no idea, but, for sure, I'm not going to make it.

No comments: